Presidential Lecture Series
Bruno Latour
Latour on...
Humanities at Stanford

Bruno Latour
Bruno Latour portrait

"For twenty years or so, my friends and I have been studying these strange situations that the intellectual culture in which we live does not know how to categorize. For lack of better terms, we call ourselves sociologists, historians, economists, political scientists, philosophers or anthropologists. But to these venerable disciplinary labels we always add a qualifier: 'of science and technology'."

(Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, p. 3)


For nearly a quarter century, Bruno Latour has been a vanguard figure in the eclectic field of "science studies." Indeed, his writings chart the course of this newly emergent discipline. "Science studies" describes research that uses the methods of the social and human sciences (sociology, anthropology, philosophy) to understand how humans go about their scientific and technological pursuits. At the base of this research are questions about how scientific knowledge is created. Yet Latour has not been content to bring ethnography and philosophy to the realm of the natural sciences and technology. While some projects analyze laboratory life, microbial biology, and transportation technology, he has also tackled more traditional social science topics such as urban planning, religion, and the judicial system. Latour's boundary-defying work has predictably provoked controversy, and he has become a favorite target of critics who seek to maintain borders between the disciplines.

Latour was born in 1947 in Beaune, France, just to the south of Dijon. Beaune is the center of wine production in this area of Burgundy, and his parents were grape growers. After his university studies at Dijon in philosophy and theology, he passed the agrégation, which certified him to teach philosophy. His first published article, in 1973, analyzed the theology and writings of Charles Péguy (1873-1914), and he received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Tours in 1975 with a dissertation on Péguy and others called "Exégèse et ontologie: une analyse des textes de résurrection." In the meantime, military service had taken him to Africa. While on the Ivory Coast, his interest in anthropology deepened, when he learned social scientific methods through conducting field studies. This work resulted in his ethnographic study of French methods of industrial education in Abidjian, which he carried out for ORSTOM (Institut Français de Recherche Scientifique pour le développement en Coopération) and published in 1974. Founded in 1943 as the Office de la Recherche Scientifique Coloniale, an agency of colonial science, ORSTOM had by the 1970s redefined its mission and was now promoting science and technology in developing countries, especially those that had emerged from French colonial pasts. ORSTOM's work took place at an international nexus of political, scientific, technical, and governmental interests, and Latour's study highlighted the difficulties of transferring technical expertise within contexts formed by a complex mix of cultures and political realities.

Latour's ORSTOM study set the stage for another major transition in his career. His conversations with other social scientists at ORSTOM, particularly with the cultural anthropologist, ethnologist, and director of research, Marc Auge, led Latour to consider a new research program. Building on his experience with ethnographic methods and also drawing upon a burgeoning interest in the anthropology of knowledge, he shifted his gaze from the training of African technical elites to what he would later call "the first attempt at a detailed study of the daily activities of scientists in their natural habitat" (Laboratory Life, 274). The critical event occurred in 1973, when Latour met one of the founders of the new field of neuroendocrinology, Roger Guillemin. Like Latour, Guillemin was a Dijon-born Burgundian, but his scientific career had taken him to Montreal and then, in 1953, to the United States. In 1970, Guillemin had accepted a post at the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, and in 1977 he would receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Andrew Schally for their discoveries concerning the peptide hormone production of the brain. Guillemin invited Latour to carry out a kind of ethnographic study of scientific research in his laboratory. Latour received a Fulbright Fellowship (1975-1976) and NATO Fellowship (1976-1977) for the project, so that beginning in October 1975 he worked in California for a nearly two-year study of research at the Salk Institute. Latour decided to "become part of a laboratory, to follow closely the intimate processes of scientific work, while at the same time to remain an 'inside' outside observer, a kind of anthropological probe to study a scientific 'culture' — to follow in every detail what the scientists do and how and what they think" (Laboratory Life, 12). His observations were the basis for Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), which Latour co-authored with a sociologist of science, Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life became a pioneering text of "laboratory studies," which combined participant-observer methods of the anthropologist and emerging social constructivist and "sociology of scientific knowledge" (SSK) programs in science studies championed by a largely British group that included Woolgar, Harry Collins, David Edge, Michael Mulkay, and others.

During the 1980s, Latour re-oriented his work again, moving from observation of practice to the discernment of underlying structures of techno-scientific activity, including historical and philosophical aspects. After completing Laboratory Life, he began work on a historical project, a survey of "Pasteur's revolution" in the context of French society in the 19th century. This work was published as Les Microbes: Guerre et paix in 1984. The Pasteur project was followed by a flurry of translation, presentation and revision of Latour's work for Anglo-American readers with the publication between 1986 and 1988 of the second, revised edition of Laboratory Life (1986) with its significantly changed title, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts; his most direct statement of the collaborative, networked nature of fact-making and the rhetoric of science, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (1987); and the translation of a revised version of Les microbres titled The Pasteurization of France (1988). These publications traced movement away from sociology of science, SSK in particular, toward Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and epistemology, partly due to the diverse influences on his work from Michel Callon, Michel Serres, and A. J. Greimas, among others. David Bloor's "Anti-Latour" challenged Latour's move away from the "Strong Program" in the sociology of scientific knowledge, but Latour's position remained somewhat flexible. He noted in response that Bloor's "Strong Program allowed me and many colleagues in France to escape from the utter domination of the French epistemologists who had carried out, until then, a thoroughly whiggish history of science that had made impossible for them to profit from the new Anglo-American history of science," but Latour made clear that this phase of his work had indeed been transitory ("For David Bloor... and Beyond").

Latour's work took a distinctly philosophical turn during the 1990s, and he has labeled his own work "epistemological." In 1997, Latour declared the end of Actor Network Theory in his contribution to the "Actor Network and After" Workshop, after having devoted much of his writing during the early 1990s to developing and steadily building up ANT with colleagues such as Callon and Madeline Akrich. Now, Latour left little doubt about its demise: "There are four things that do not work with actor-network theory; the word actor, the word network, the word theory and the hyphen! Four nails in the coffin." At the same time, he ended his talk, "On Recalling ANT," optimistically, predicting that "some other creature will emerge, light and beautiful, our future collective achievement." His most recent book suggests that a return to his methodological roots has been part of the birth of this creature. In La fabrique du droit: une ethnographie du Conseil d'Etat, he returns to the investigation of knowledge production within an institution, producing an ethnographic study of the production of laws and legal judgement based on a three-year study of the Conseil d'Etat.

Professor Latour has for many years been on the faculty of the Centre de sociologie de l'Innovation of the Ecole nationale supérieure des mines in Paris, and is also visiting professor at the London School of Economics and in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. His latest project, "ICONOCLASH. Jenseits der Bilderkriege in Wissenschaft, Religion und Kunst" (ICONOCLASH: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art) took form as an exhibition at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien [ZKM] in Karlsruhe, held from May 4 to September 1, 2002. He headed an international team of co-curators that included Peter Galison (West Memorial Lecturer at Stanford in 2002), Hans Ulrich Obrist, Dario Gamboni, and Joseph Lee Koerner. This project also resulted in a book, ICONOCLASH: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art, edited by Latour and Peter Weibel of the ZKM. This curatorial team sought to present "image wars" in these three realms, demonstrating both the urge to create and the desire to destroy images — icon worship and iconoclasm. The resulting exhibit displayed experiments with different ways of suspending the "iconoclastic gesture," of showing how the "movement of images" can resist their "freeze-framing." As Latour put it in his curatorial statement for the project web site, "what we call 'icono-clash'[not clasm], is when there is a deep and disturbing uncertainty about the role, power, status, danger, violence of an image or a given representation; when one does not know whether an image should be broken or restored." This project is the topic of Bruno Latour's Stanford Presidential Lecture.


Text by Henry Lowood, Curator for the History of Science,
and Sarah Sussman, Curator for French and Italian Collections,
Stanford University Libraries (c)2003.


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