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Qualitative Research
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DOI: 10.1177/1468794105048651
2005 5: 147 Qualitative Research
Terry Austrin and John Farnsworth
Hybrid genres: fieldwork, detection and the method of Bruno Latour

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ABS TRACT This article explores tensions in the study of innovation,
the practice of fieldwork and the narratives these produce,
particularly as represented in the work of Latour. It argues that
Latours ethnographic studies of science and technology parody a
variety of sociological and literary genres, particularly detective
fiction, and that he uses this literary device as a way of pinpointing
unexpected links between fictional and sociological modes of
investigation. In Latours hands, parody illuminates important issues
of fieldwork practice and becomes an innovative method that
problematizes conventional sociological narratives and practice.
KE YWORDS : detective, fieldwork, genre, hybrids, method, parody,
How Latour asks (1999c: 24) do we pack the world into words? It is a
question that exercises many social scientists. The movement from research
site to published page often involves a shift where the world often appears to slip
away in the act of translation. This is one problem we address here. In another
context, Latour (1996: 147) observes that innovation studies are like detective
stories, and it has been a connection he has himself traced and developed over
a number of years. As a metaphor, this fictional world is a productive one for
social scientists because detective work illuminates much about the way
innovation and investigation actually take place, along with the networks each
mobilizes and assembles in the process. It also points to the unavoidably
fabricated nature of the accounts that finally emerge their provisional,
representational, sometimes fictive characteristics. Put together, Latours two
comments describe a way of approaching social research that marries method
and writing, and these twin concerns form the focus of this article.
Hybrid genres: fieldwork, detection and
the method of Bruno Latour
Qualitative Research
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Latours method is a radical one: it is avowedly not sociological, though he
often portrays himself as either an ethnographer (in Laboratory Life, Latour
and Woolgar, 1986) or a sociologist (Aramis, 1996). He favours method and
enquiry over theory at every turn (1988); he prefers translation and
engagement to metalanguage and reflexive textuality (1988), and he
privileges the association of humans, non-humans and technologies over the
purely social (1999a, 2000). For Latour, the social world is produced and
sustained only out of the continuous interaction of persons and things:
together, these create time, space and the dynamic network of relationships
that constitute complex worlds (1997b).
Such a stance has attracted its share of critics. Their primary focus has been
on Latours method: on what they attack as its navety and its inadequacy. We
outline these criticisms, and Latours responses, as well as suggesting how his
method has been received, or taken up by others, in the next section.
Following this, we suggest how detective work is represented both in novels
and in the social sciences. We go on to analyse how Latour himself employs
writing, method and detection through a detailed discussion of two pieces of
fieldwork: the earlier Laboratory Life (Latour and Woolgar, 1986) and the
more recent Aramis (1996).
What we emphasize throughout is Latours insight that social research can
usefully be understood as a form of detective work: how its modes of
investigation, its means of enquiry and its practice of assemblage offer a
suggestive method for the social sciences. Such a method involves tracking
and tracing; its outcome is the production of new knowledge knowledge
which, almost by definition, has a sense of surprise or unpredictability to it, as
detective stories often do. Serres and Latour (1995: 65) refer to this as a
hermetic method, one of explication and unpleating: tracing and unfolding
complex arrangements to reveal the implicate, unforeseen elements and
practices that constitute them.
When Latour follows scientists, as in Laboratory Life, or failed innovators, as
in Aramis, it requires him to innovate too, through constantly assembling and
reassembling the materials at hand. Writing then becomes part of this
assemblage itself: not a report on fieldwork as a set of stabilized research
findings but a process of translation and stabilization in its own right a
circulating reference, to use Latours term. As he comments (2003: 5): Every
single new topic requires a new way to be handled by a text. Working this
way allows Latour to call on the conventions of genre as the vehicle because,
to adopt Beckers (1986) observation, telling about society is performed in
different ways through different textual forms (and, by extension, different
genres). In social research, these genres vary from statistical reports to
comparative historical accounts and ethnographic documents. Latour (1980,
2004), however, goes further by playing with, parodying and ironizing
different textual forms that, conventionally, exist outside the social sciences
invoking, in the process, a strategy which already has a long history in
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literary and hermeneutic theory (Dentith, 2000; Latour, 1988; Rose, 1993;
Ruthven, 1979). In doing so, he illuminates the productive hybrids that
emerge both from such heterogeneous genres (for instance, the new genre of
scientifiction that he invents) and from the hybrid networks of humans and
technologies that co-create new (scientific) knowledge.
In what follows, we discuss how Latour works through some of the
implications for fieldwork and for interpretation; but also how, in writing in
different genres and making them explicit as he does, he mobilizes exactly the
use of verbal technologies called genres to reorder existing knowledge in the
social scientific field. In other words, his own writing is a reflexive demon-
stration of the process he is studying, one which is accomplished, in this case,
through the monstrous mating of literary forms and sociology.
Writing and method
The relationship of fieldwork to writing has long exercised ethnographers.
The main tension it provokes is around the problem of telling it as it is
(Brewer, 2000: 39). The traditional solution has been a reliance on a nave
realism that emphasizes insider accounts and thick description to voice the
feelings, actions and meanings of local participants (Denzin, 1989: 83).
Alternatives have included Hammersleys (1990) subtle realism or Altheide
and Johnsons (1998) analytic realism. Such approaches offer, for example,
multi-vocal accounts by participants that attempt to provide a more reflexive,
representative account of the field (Atkinson, 1996; Denzin and Lincoln,
1998; Hertz, 1997). This has led to what Atkinson and Coffey (1995) have
described as a crisis of representation. Yet, each of these approaches is an
attempt to capture or convey features of the ethnographic field. More recent
ethnography has often foregrounded the representative practices of writing
through, for example, exercises in reflexivity, evocation, rhetoric or fiction
(see, for instance, Ashmore, 1989; Atkinson et al., 2001; Denzin, 2000;
Hammersley, 1993; Hopper, 1995; Mulkay, 1985; Paget, 1995; Tyler, 1986;
Woolgar, 1988). Recently, Manning (2003, Appendix A) has interrogated the
relationship between writing, method and policing with respect to Goffmans
Whatever approach is adopted, classic debates commonly focus on
problems around framing or entering the field (doing fieldwork) or
representing it (writing it). Collins (1984) is one influential writer who has
investigated the first question in detail. He describes two ideal types positivist
and interpretivist to show how fieldwork practice is tied not to expediency in
the field but to different philosophical stances. Yet, a key fieldwork practice,
participant observation, is still open to compromise because it constantly risks
disturbing the situation (1984: 55) through the fieldworkers presence in the
research site. Researchers have two alternatives in these circumstances:
unobtrusive observation the fly on the wall approach, where the
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distinction between observer and observed is absolute; or participant
comprehension, where interaction with informants is maximized in order to
provoke insight and understanding.
Radically, Latour adopts both and adopts neither. He participates but
remains a perpetually nave stranger in the science lab (Laboratory Life). He
follows rather than observes (Aramis); he accumulates detail rather than
interprets individuals actions (Pandoras Hope, 1999c). His method is neither
positivist nor interpretivist (Bingham and Thrift, 2003) and it is concerned
with objects and technologies as much as humans (Giere and Moffatt, 2003).
This position is sharply at odds with Collins and contemporary sociological
fieldwork. As Collins argues (1984: 61), the investigator is concerned with
knowing through experiencing because the stress is not on recording events
(though this may be necessary for other aspects of the project in hand) but on
internalising a way of life. Doing this enables the researcher to acquire
unspecified native competence (1984: 65): in effect, to gain tacit knowledge.
This is the method of participation, the method of verstehende sociology
(Collins and Yearley, 1992a: 311).
This is not Latours purpose. As Callon and he argue (1992: 348): we have
never been interested in giving a social explanation of anything. Nonethe-
less, Latours argument still opens him to criticism on several fronts. Collins
and Yearley (1992a: 323) charge, among other things, that Latour represents
not only a poverty of method, but a method that is atheoretical (1992b: 337).
They claim that simply following around is inadequate and undemandingly
explanatorily conservative because it excludes interpretation of action
(1992b: 372). Further, they argue that the method takes a metaphysical turn
by granting intentionality to things (1992b: 375) whether these are pieces
of paper (1992a: 312), doorstoppers (1992a: 320) or even living entities
such as scallops (1992b: 372). They compare the relative merits of their
approach to Latours as follows:
on the one hand, then, there is a grand, although incomplete, system which
involves following scientists and technologists around, but which we claim is
essentially conservative. On the other hand there is a less ambitious way of
going about the study of science and technology but one which is harder to do
because of its countercommonsensical claims (it produces descriptions which fit
far less readily with accounts of the world of the majority of scientists and
ideologists of science). We think our approach has the potential to change the
relations between cultural enterprises and to give more power to those outside
science. (1992b: 384)
Latour, and Callon, offer a variety of responses. Latour (in Crawford and
Latour, 1993: 255) remarks that the vocabulary of actor-network theory is
voluntarily poor. Callon and Latour (1992: 375) suggest that, in any case,
the touchstone of any position is its empirical fruitfulness. As Latour argues
in a later article (1999b: 21), actor-network theory (ANT) is a method and
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not a theory, a way to travel from one spot to the next, from one field site to the
next, not an interpretation of what actors simply glossed in a different more
palatable and more universalist language. ANT tells how to go about
systematically recording the world building abilities of the sites to be
documented and registered. It does not claim to explain the actors behaviour
but (1999b: 21) only to find the procedures which render actors able to
negotiate their ways through one anothers world-building activity.
In a sharper retort, Callon and Latour (1992: 351) comment that classical
social theory, or philosophy of science, never faced this problem, since they
ignored either the things or the society. They add (1992: 3534) that
following things does not mean that we wish to extend intentionality to
things or mechanism to humans, but only that with any one attribute we
should be able to depict the other. This is the principle of symmetry in the
intellectual treatments of humans and nonhumans which, as Laurier and
Philo (1999: 1055) comment, has caused much controversy, and has
prompted accusations of a dangerous relativism. On the contrary, Callon and
Latour argue (1992: 356), since differences are so visible, what needs to be
understood is their construction, their transformations, their remarkable
variety and mobility.
This last comment again intimates the radical nature of Latours method
and also suggests how Latour moves beyond ANTs earlier metaphor of the
network towards the idea of the constantly mutating rhizome (Deleuze and
Guattari, 1988): the perfect word for the network (Crawford and Latour,
1993: 255). The rhizome is a protean analogy, one which is after actor-
network theory (Latour, 1997a, 1999b), and it allows researchers including
Latour to follow the way heterogenous worlds are constructed across multiple
sites (Barry, 2001; Callon, 2004; Law and Mol, 2001; Mol, 2000; Murdoch,
1998). As Bingham and Thrift (2003: 229) comment, By following circu-
lations, [the method] has produced a sense of a world of partial connection in
which all kinds of constantly shifting spaces can co-exist, overlap and
hybridise, move together, move apart.
This mode of provisional, localized investigation accommodates some of
Lee and Browns (1994) concern that the topological figure of the network is
too limited because it forecloses the destabilizing impact of Otherness. On the
contrary, Latours method appears to open this up (Hetherington and Law,
2000; Latour, 1997a).
For example, de Laet (2000: 149) follows patents as they travel from their
place of origin in the Western world of technoscience to newly developing
worlds such as Zimbabwe, and how they change the sociotechnical con-
figurations in which they emerge. Patents are examples of the immutable
mobile (Latour, 1990): an inscription device that moves within a network
and its nodal points of passage but remains the same in different contexts
highlighting, in De Laets case, the changing relations around it
(Hetherington and Law, 2000). As Latour suggested, the patent illustrates
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how time, places and agents are reassembled through their association. It is
neither humans nor the social which are central here, but the sociotechnical,
and this is the best explanation of how such worlds are constructed. (Latour,
1988). As Whatmore (2003: 97) comments, the method extends the register
of what it means to generate materials from one in which only talk counts, to
one in which bodies, technologies and codes all come into play. In contrast to
Collins and Yearley, this suggests a richness, not a poverty, of method; as
Latour argues, its touchstone is its empirical fruitfulness.
Rules of method, rules of detection
Following actors and things in time and across settings is also the method of
the detective. Indeed it is possible to see the detective as ethnographer as much
as the ethnographer as detective. Such detection reveals, particularly in crime
fiction, unsuspected networks of connection and worlds assembled out of
unforeseen arrangements of things (guns, cars, drugs, phones) and the
human beings with which they are implicated. The novels of generations of
detective writers, from Conan Doyles elite English country house murders to
the multi-site, teamwork practices displayed in Ed McBains New York police
procedurals, are replete with how the tracing and disassembling of these
complex linkages and local worlds take place.
Where Latour is concerned, they produce two sets of tensions. One is the
relationship between fiction and factual practices and Latour plays on this
in Aramis, as we describe later. The other is the appropriation of detective
fiction by other disciplines: the detective novel has been the focus of
significant commentary by sociologists, geographers and historians. For
instance, Glover (1979) registers the sociological importance of Dashiel
Hammett who focuses on the detective and his/her perspectives. Unlike
McBain who conducted meticulous research, Hammett wrote with an inner
knowledge of the people and processes endemic to detective work. (Glover,
1979: 21). Like Powell (1998), a geographer, the focus of Glovers analysis is
on the meaning of the social worlds through which the investigator moves.
For example, Glover picks out a theme of individualism in a setting of
dehumanizing capitalist social relations, while Powell highlights the everyday
urban knowledge of ordinary people: the movements of ordinary people,
caught up in crimes and their aftermath (1998: 370). Richard Cobb (1976a,
1976b, 1976c) writes as a historian of Georges Simenon: for Cobb, Simenons
detective Maigret investigates like a historian, with his observation of habit,
routine, assumptions, banality, everydayness. . . (1976a: 183), that discloses
the nature of the everyday in local settings. Cobbs argument is in complete
contrast to Mandels (1984: vii) sociological concern with the history of the
crime story as a social rather than literary history. Here, the crime story is a
response to the needs of the alienated intellectual and service-industry labour
partly conscious of its alienation (Mandel 1984: 73). For David Frisby
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(1992: 3), the detective is a modern allegorical form dealing with
disenchantment and disillusion.
What each of these authors exemplify, apart from an admiration for the
detective genre, is a discovery of the social (alienation, rationalization,
solidarity) in the novels. Each discovers sociological or humanist themes but
ignores things or how cases are actually solved. This emphasis on the social is
the same as that rejected by Latour in his dispute with sociology. Yet it still
enables him to parallel the detective method depicted in the genre and to
adopt its popular cultural form to comment on how writing makes the very
world it seeks to describe. This is the tension, particularly in Aramis, against
which Latour writes (and see Laurier and Philo, 1999).
A similar tension emerges around sociological accounts of actual police
work. Sanders (1977), in a detailed study of American police detectives (and
see Ericson, 1993) suggests that the purpose of ethnography is to uncover
social, cultural, or normative patterns of a group of people (Sanders, 1977:
153). Generally, this involves an analytic description of a cohorts behaviour
in terms of a social setting, organisation or culture (Sanders 1977: 153). Like
Collins and Yearley, Sanders privileges the social and largely excludes the
assemblages of technologies (interview rooms, patrol cars, police records,
forensic devices and surveillance techniques) that interest Latour as objects
and which typify police work. Martin Innes (2003) incorporates such
technologies in his examination of English police detection, as do Ericson and
Haggerty (1997). However, he presents detectives as social constructivists:
investigation (Innes, 2003: 7) on this account, is a complex form of sense
making. As Innes (2003: 7) puts it, Detectives, through the investigative
process, attempt to negotiate and assemble an account of what really
happened in the incident that explains who did what to whom and why. He
acknowledges, following Ericson (1993), that much detective work is
administrative in nature, based around accounting practices that require
detailed records of actions taken (Innes 2003: 11). But like Frisby (2001), he
focuses on the bureaucratic structuring of police work rather than how the
complex inscriptions produced by administrative processes organize and
assemble detectives and the worlds they engage in.
In short, where actual detective practice is concerned, there is a tension at
the level of both fiction and analysis that pits traditional perspectives of
fieldwork rooted in the social against an investigation, that Latour argues for,
of how such worlds are produced or erased in the first place. This is the issue
facing detectives in the fieldwork they undertake in both novels and in life:
what material evidence and what relationships must be traced and linked so
cases can be cleared and crimes solved (Greenwood et al., 1977: 167)? We
turn next to how Latour himself deals with, following, evidence, enquiry,
traces inscriptions and the business of fieldwork in social research by looking
at two detailed cases he has published.
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Laboratory life
First published in 1979, and republished with a postscript in 1986, Laboratory
Life, written by Latour, together with Woolgar, introduces Latour as the quasi-
anthropologist who studies the tribes called scientists engaged in the craft of
science. In this way, the ethnography of the quasi-anthropologist parodies the
conventions of ethnography. The genre of the fieldwork report long used by
anthropologists is taken over and adapted for presentation of the work done
in laboratories. It is the first study of natural scientists in their natural habitat
and the authors provide a conventional account of how they carried out their
own field/laboratory work.
Adherence to the conventions of the genre is maintained by portraying the
laboratory as seen through the eyes of a stranger. The stranger is Latour
himself a total newcomer whose mastery of the English language is very
poor (Latour and Woolgar, 1986: 273). However, in order to emphasize the
fictional nature of their account-generating process, Latour is given the name
of the observer. In this parody of the ethnographers practices, the observer,
like the detective, initially encounters a mysterious and apparently uncon-
nected sequence of events. At the same time, the way in which he attempts to
account for these phenomena provides an Ariadnes thread that allows the
reader to pass through a labyrinth of seeming chaos and confusion (1986:
44). Using this fictional character, Latour and Woolgar are at pains to show
how close fieldwork undertaken by the observer can, despite the difficulties
encountered, reveal the way a process of construction takes place in
scientific work.
The difficulties for the observer come in recognizing that the scientific
process of production necessarily involves devices whereby all traces of
production are extremely difficult to detect (1986: 176). This means that
close observation through prolonged immersion in the laboratory is
necessary to unravel the seemingly arcane mysteries the black box of
scientific innovation. As the authors put it, by being close to the localized
scientific practices the observer has a preferential situation from which to
understand how scientists themselves produce order (1986: 39). However,
this close observation is not a matter of accessing the truth of science but
rather accessing the ways in which the descriptions and reports of
observations are variously presented (and received) as good enough,
inadequate, distorted, real, accurate, and so on (1986: 282).
In this account, laboratory activity is described as the organisation of
persuasion through literary activity (1986: 88). The irony of the observers
report of this literary activity is that the scientists in the laboratory are
represented as constituting a tribe but one whose daily manipulation and
production of objects is in danger of being misunderstood, if accorded the
high status with which its outputs are sometimes greeted by the outside
world (1986: 29). And herein lies the value of parody. Latour was not looking
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for the truth but rather the way in which fabrications that pass are put
together. He was concerned with the essential elements of the process
whereby an ordered account is fabricated from disorder and chaos. In this
way, he is alert, and can alert his reader, to the pitfalls of reading what appear
to be simple facts. The problem with the tribe of scientists was not that they
were fixing and faking their reality, but that they were complicit in this fixing.
This was their way of accounting for what they did. The observer, however,
treats this as a process of telling the tales that obeyed the laws of their own
genres (1986: 171).
The problem for Latour was to account for how this happened and it
revolves around a particular difficulty for ethnographers:
A major difficulty for the observer is that he usually arrives on the scene too late:
he can only record the retrospective anecdotes of how this or that scientist had
an idea. This difficulty can be partially overcome by in situ observation both of
the construction of a new statement and of the subsequent emergence of
anecdotes about its formation. (1986: 172)
The same difficulty attends the detective who, arriving by definition after
the event (or crime), also has to establish not just who committed it, but
exactly how. Like ethnographers, this involves a meticulous microprocessing
of the facts a sifting through the jumble of clues that may enable a
reconstruction of the original sequence of events.
In Laboratory Life, Latour and Woolgar emphasize the importance of
capturing the local and contingent circumstances rather than the
rationalizations after the event. Their point is to discover analogical paths
rather than the logical connections that replace them in scientists
accounting practices. Similarly it is to locate the complex local and contingent
circumstances which temporarily make possible weak links and show how
these contingencies are erased in accounts that emphasize flashes of
intuition (1986: 174). For Latour and Woolgar, the stabilization of
scientists accounts effaces exactly how the process of innovation or discovery
actually took place. They argue this is managed by getting rid of all
determinants of place and time and of all reference to its producers and the
production process (1986: 1756). Such erasure invokes the very mysteries
of creative innovation which Latour and Woolgar are intent on demystifying.
As Latour (2003) comments at a later date, laboratories indeed looked
infinitely more interesting when described as so many construction sites than
when portrayed as dark mastabas protecting mummified laws of nature.
Likewise, and this is important for our case, they were not concerned to
produce an ordered account themselves. As they put it in the 1986 postscript,
they wanted to avoid giving the kind of smoothed narrative characteristic of
traditional constructions of the way things are (Latour and Woolgar,
1986: 276) a feature which becomes central in Latours presentation of
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All these observations on method are incorporated into the account of Aramis
(1996). More significantly, and more ambitiously, they are incorporated into
a detective story with love and betrayal at its centre. Like the Sherlock Holmes
stories, Latour begins with a map of the territory under discussion, in this
case Paris, and a timetable of events. The narrative of a young engineer then
tracks Holmes/Norbert (his mentoring sociology professor) and his
arguments as to how they should follow actors, sticking to them, drifting with
them as they drift, in order to locate the chains of association that link the
events within the space of the map.
Aramis or the Love of Technology reveals the failure of the French to build
Aramis, an automated personal transport system which was devised, and
died, in Paris in the late 1980s. The system represented a potentially major
advance in rapid urban passenger transit, combining the efficiency of the
subway with the flexibility of the car. But its innovative, computerized
coupling system proved both complex and expensive and, with an eventual
failure of political will, the project trundled to a standstill in 1987.
The story is told from the perspective of several different parties, including
a final passionate lament from Aramis, the technology itself, on behalf of all
technology for the continuing commitment of those who create it. At the
same time, the book shows how the sociological investigation to uncover the
story was carried out. Like a detective novel in the American hard-boiled
tradition, this account of a single case is a story of love and hate, passions and
betrayal, and the murder of this forlornly unrealized new technology. It is an
account both of the compromise, drift and uncertainty over decisions taken
by engineers, and of the process of investigating and understanding this
tangled process by the sociologist and his assistant. It is an ethnography, but
it is also a detective story told as a romance. The play on genre and the
burlesque indulgence in parody are a striking feature throughout.
Latour dubs the book a scientifiction a study of science and an exercise
in fiction which parodies the classic detective story as represented by
Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. The corpse in Latours book is Aramis,
the failed project. Norbert, the Holmesian sociology professor, partnered by
his nave, young Watson-like engineering student, is assigned the task of
determining the cause of death. As Norbert points out, what they are really
dealing with is not so much a corpse and its murderers (as in a fictional
account) but with real-world actions involving dismemberers of assemblages
of human and non-humans (1996: 74). This blend of humans and tech-
nologies carries, unsurprisingly, echoes of Mary Shelleys Frankenstein, and
indeed her story features in the text. But, unlike the fictional detective novel,
in the genre of scientifiction the fatal cause will not be found at the beginning
of the project any more than it will be found at its very end (1996: 50).
However, like the classical detective story, Latours analysis is dependent upon
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a semiotic reading of signs to locate connections. In Latours case, this
reading of signs is not accompanied by forensic scientific procedures that are
central to the police procedural detective story, but it does involve an
immersion in the case typical of the hard-boiled tradition. Utilizing this mode
of knowledge would seem to combine semiotics and the fieldworkers
canniness (Stowe, 1983).
The story unfolds through the juxtaposition of a medley of different genres.
These range from charts, interview excerpts, photographs and bureaucratic
dossiers to sociological commentary and novelistic narrative:
Isnt it always that way? I asked.
Youve got to be kidding! The last study I read was on inertial guidance systems
for intercontinental missiles.
Those things are not treated like the Messiah.
(Latour, 1996: 17)
Scientifiction, the hybrid genre of the novel and sociological commentary that
Latour invents and adopts for the purposes of telling the Aramis story, allows
him to become close enough to reality so that scientific worlds could become
once again what they had been: possible worlds in conflict that move and
shape one another (1996: ix). Significantly, it provides equal agency to all the
actants the actors and things involved. His relational, refined sociology
requires a different type of genre to give weight and voice to the variable and
shifting assemblies of actors and researchers. It requires a shift away from
fixed frames of reference to a relativistic sociology with fluctuating referents
that allow for all viewpoints to be deployed, equally. Just as detective fiction
writers transformed the genre of the classical detective story, in which the
detective worked out everything by reading signs rather than entering the
worlds of the suspects, Latour seeks to do the same for sociology. The different
subject matter requires a reworking of the traditional genre. Where the genre
of detective fiction shifted in order both to write in the vernacular (Worpole,
1983) and to give weight and voice to a shifting range of actors and their
accounts, so must sociology. Just as detective fiction parodies its own genre
conventions and hybridizes its storytelling, so must sociology.
Readers of Latours book also learn that in doing fieldwork it is important to
get hold of the original documents and to assume that people are right, even
if you have to stretch the point a bit (1996: 36). And, that sociological
fieldworkers have to travel. This particular piece of advice comes in the form
of an in-joke. For example, where readers of McBains detective novels are let
in on pointed jokes among his police officers, readers of Latour are also let in
on in-jokes, but these are regarding the differences between sociologists and
anthropologists. So, in contrast to ethnologists who generally stay in one
village and draw nice, neat maps, we sociologists have to drag ourselves
around everywhere (1996: 46). And, unlike conventional ethnography, Our
terrains arent territories. They have weird borders. Theyre networks,
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rhizomes (1996: 46). Similarly, Latour jokes about his own work. The young
engineer describes Norbert as being carried away by the way he thanks
automatic ticket machines, converses with electric staplers and talks to
automatic door openers all of them actants Latour has celebrated in his own
work (Laurier and Philo, 1999). Norbert also interviews a speed bump, a so-
called sleeping policeman, on the pretext that this peace officer was more
faithful, more serious, more intrinsically moral than his own nephew, though
the latter was a precinct captain (1996: 211). Readers of Latours other
works will get the references.
The jokes have their relevance. They define the fieldworkers and their
practices. They allow Norbert, with tears in his eyes (1996: 144), to show
the young engineer that things in his view are not as they are found in
sociology formed from the state of human beings. Nor do they take the form
of those representations in technologism that assert the opposite maxim, give
me the state of things and Ill tell you what people can do (1996: 213). A
thing for Norbert offers a continuous passage, a commerce, an interchange,
between what humans inscribe in and what it prescribes to humans. It
translates one into the other. It is neither subject nor object but a quasi
object/quasi subject (1996: 213). Humans and non-humans take on form by
redistributing the competences and performances of the multitude of actors
that they hold on to and that hold on to them (1996: 225). As in Serres and
Latour (1995), things are media. This is one of the insights at the heart of
actor-network theory; paradoxically, its seriousness is often best signalled
through jokes.
The issue at stake for the two fieldworkers is one of innovation: in this case,
a failure to realize a new innovation. How, then, does innovation take place or
fail? As Norbert explains it, chains of translation transform global problems,
such as urban transportation, into local problems through intermediaries,
and innovation always comes from a blending or redistribution of properties
between humans and things that had previously been dispersed. In this
translation model, the initial idea of innovation, of Aramis, barely counts.
There is no intrinsic idea (of Aramis), only a negotiable set of claims. Rather
than the product of brilliant minds, innovations, like Aramis, are generally ill
conceived, unreal in principle and have no power. If they are to move they will
do so only if they provoke the interests of one group or another. And this is
what Norbert and the young engineer follow in an extensive interviewing
programme that takes them all over Paris.
As in the detective novel, suspense arises from the fact that these actors
translate the wants and needs of different worlds. In doing so, they also betray
because ambiguity is part of the process of translation (Latour, 1996: 48).
Like detective fiction, actor-network analysis is always concerned with the
drama of (variable) identities. And, like detective fiction, it also knows that in
the course of investigation it is generally the case that behind the actors,
others appear; behind one set of intentions there are others; between the
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(variable) goals and the (variable) desires, intermediate goals and implications
proliferate, and they all demand to be taken into account (1996: 100). Unlike
the classical detective novel, it is the young engineer, the Watson figure, who,
transformed by the process of investigation, solves the puzzle. At the point
that the young engineer is required to write up a report on their findings
without Norberts presence, he notes that:
With the help precarious as it had been of my mentors sociology no longer
available I clung to the methods of detective novels. Like Hercule Poirot when
hes stuck, I had written out a list of the most significant interpretations. They
didnt converge at all. (1996: 277)
He discovered that Norbert was right: not a single element on his list was
stable but, through investigation of his list, he also discovers the hidden
staircase. In the tradition of the classical detective story he exclaims, like
Hercule Poirot, Good Lord, but of course! Thats it! They, the engineers, had
never made Aramis a research project, subject to negotiation and uncertainty.
They didnt love it (1996: 282). Instead, they abandoned Aramis so as not to
compromise it. The pertinent question under review by the fieldworkers was
not whether it was a matter of technology or society, but what was the best
sociotechnological compromise? (Latour and Woolgar, 1986: 101). They
discover that no attempts at compromise were made the point at which love
and commitment became essential to its survival. There was not enough
negotiation and this fragile, highly innovative project collapsed.
The scientifiction ends in the form of an epilogue with the major players
assembled around a large oval table in a room on the Quai des Grands-
Augustins. The epilogue, typical of the classical detective story, ironizes both
the genre of the detective story and the practices of sociologists. It maintains
that the presence of these people in this place at this time cannot be equated
with the last chapter of a detective story because Aramis may well be dead
but there was no murder, no perpetrator and no guilty party, just a collective
drift of good intentions (Latour, 1996: 290). Therefore, there is no point in
deciding who finally killed Aramis. The readers already know this. We were
told on p. 10 it was a collective assassination or, rather, an abandonment of a
business that went on for 17 years. What Norbert locates in the field is love,
perhaps not enough love, but certainly not guilt; ways of being wrong, ways
of making mistakes, but not criminals. In a sense Latours sociology could be
viewed as sociology of the mistakes or errors that inevitably accompany the
process of innovation and invention.
In Aramis, Latour plays with different genres the detective/science fiction/
romance to present his different mode of storying. This playing depends on
his audience understanding this form of treatment and it provides us with a
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sociology that breaks from the stable categories of the well-established genre
he refers to as sociological commentary. This is the point at which postmodern
novelists rework the traditional genres of the discipline Robbe-Grillet with
Erasers (1966) is a paradigm case creating, as Perry (1994: 105) argues of
Potters Singing Detective, a critically important solution that reconciles a
popular cultural form with the aesthetic demands of high culture. Latour
actually experiments with similar genres in order to make his very different
sociological case. Like Eco (1983) in The Name of The Rose, he relies on the
classical detective story as foil and uses its form of game to make his points.
It is a strategy used to different ends, but with equally subversive effect, by
feminist crime writers, as Rowland (2000) argues with authors ranging from
Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell.
There is a marked effect on the reader, too. This sharp departure from
classical sociologys realist narrative repositions the reader who, like the
protagonists, can be left equally unsure of whether these events really
happened. Is the account fiction or is it fact? Out of this ambiguity, readers
themselves are constructed almost as an effect of the style of writing. This is
heightened by Latours mode of parody. Its constant ironizing works to
suspend belief so that the reader is as involved in a self-reflexive examination
of their own place as observer of the unfolding fictional reality as Norbert
and Watson. Readers, unavoidably, become detectives too, sifting and
weighing the text for the storys veracity and meaning.
As Kermode (1983) argued of the detective story, it is a hermeneutic
game, and this is the form that Latour adopts. His detective story is concerned
with the elucidation of a series of events and objects. For Kermode, the
hermeneutically relevant information in the narrative operates to spawn
further cultural and symbolic information. This is key for Kermode: the
(detective) genre is evidently one in which hermeneutic information
predominates; but to provide it in a narrative is to activate other systems of
reading and interpretation (1983: 184). In Latours case this other infor-
mation takes a different form: as part of the dispute he carries on with
classical sociology and with technologism. Put another way, his parody
operates, in effect, constantly to destabilize sociologys conventional forms of
representation. In doing so, it problematizes sociologys claims to detached
scientific objectivity by its gesture towards an ambiguous, reflexive engage-
ment with its subject matter As a consequence, it reverses the usual emphasis,
following Durkheim, of treating social facts as a thing in favour of Tardes
prescription that any phenomenon is a social fact (Latour, 2002: 120).
The adoption of the new genre of scientifiction points to Latours twin
obsessions: the depiction of possible worlds in the making worlds which
include artefacts (Laurier and Philo 1999) and the inadequacies of
conventional formats used by classical sociology to handle them (Latour,
2000, 2003). Classical sociology is then, in Beckers (1986) formulation, a
form of misrepresentation in so far as it excludes objects, and Latour is
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engaged in a search for a more adequate means of representation. Latour
should be understood, therefore, not only as an innovator in matters of
relational sociological analysis but also as an innovator in matters of genre.
According to his account, the genre of scientifiction provides just such a
relational sociological text in which:
there is no metalanguage, no master discourse, where you wouldnt know
which is the strongest, sociological theory or the documents or the interviews or
the literature or the fiction, where all these genres or regimes would be at the
same level, each one interpreting the others without anybody being able to
judge to say which is judging what. (Latour, 1996: 298)
This is the point of his sociology. As he argues, sociologists never know
enough to judge actors; nor, indeed, is it their job. It is the actors who teach
the sociologists their sociology (1996: 168). This is why ethnography is his
chosen method of research. But to accept this maxim doesnt mean it is
necessary, as traditional ethnography would have it, to travel to foreign
countries to achieve the necessary distance for research purposes. Nor even,
as Chicago sociologists understood it, to work with a notion of exoticism.
Instead, Latour emphasizes something else from anthropology that is
extremely important. This is the notion of uncertainty which is also so critical
to detective fiction. The new genre is the vehicle that allows the sociologist to
explore and represent this new sociology. It provides for, or allows for, giving
voices to things, non-humans and humans.
In a sense, Aramis does not live and die in vain, for its story can be used to
help others understand research (1996: 298) and to denounce the
pretensions of classical sociology. Classical sociology claims to know more
than the actors it researches: it judges and sees right through them to the
social structure or the destiny of which they are the patients (1996: 199).
This sociology presumes to comment on what others say because it has
metalanguage whereas the actors only have language. For classical sociology,
actors become only informants and sociology exists above the fray at the same
time as it also offers lessons, denounces and rectifies. As Latour puts it in his
strongest attack, for classical sociology the world is an asylum of fools and
traitors, of pretenders and guilty consciences, and half-educated types. In this
asylum the sociologist is the director, the only one who has the right to go
outside (1996: 200). By contrast his relativist sociology has no fixed
reference frames and consequently no metalanguage. It does not know, or
presume to know, what society is made of; instead, it seeks out informants
who may (1996: 200). Aramis, like a good detective novel, shows how this
works in practice. And how acts of fiction can serve purposes of truth-telling.
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TE RRY AUS TRI N is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Canterbury. He
teaches courses in sociological theory and the sociology of work. He has published
articles and a book, with Huw Beynon (Masters and Servants: Class and Patronage in the
Making of a Labour Organisation: The Durham Miners and the English Political Tradition
(London: Rivers Oram, 1994), in the area of historical sociology. He has also published
articles on the contemporary organization of work in a range of industries. He is
currently working on the cultural significance of the emergence of gambling as a legal
Address: School of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Canterbury, Private Bag
4800, Christchurch 8020, New Zealand. [email: terry.austrin@canterbury.ac.nz]
J OHN FARNS WORTH has published primarily in the area of media sociology, partic-
ularly in the field of media organizations and occupations. He teaches at the New
Zealand Broadcasting School and in the Management Department at the University of
Otago in New Zealand.
Address: New Zealand Broadcasting School, CPIT, PO Box 540, Christchurch, New
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