the role of reviews in the social science

All this discussion of new infrastructuralism and the infrastructural relation between “black-boxing” and “institutionalization” makes me think about the role of reviews in social science.

The question is: is a concept what it is, or does how it has been used constitute what it (now) is?

I think this for the following reason: Latour, in Actor Network Theory and After goes into something of a littany regarding the ways that ANT has been used and abused over the years since he and Callon (and Woolgar, honestly) thought of it. Of his many points, a meta-point matters for this post: he basically states that as his ideas spread, they increasingly got used in ways he did not expect and then Latour makes something of a value judgment in suggesting that some research, which appears to be relatively more current as compared to his original works, don’t do ANT right. Of course, Latour takes some blame in saying that perhaps the entire moniker including, A, -, N, and T were not perfect, it still seems like an odd point to hear from Latour. About 120-ish pages into Science in Action, Latour reviews as part of the translation model of how things spread (i.e., diffuse, though he considers this a dirty word) he demands that spread requires change — that a technology, for example, must change as it enters into new hands. This was a counterpoint to diffusion of innovation literature (that he hardly cites) and their supposed assumption that diffusion, as an idea and model, only works so long as we assume the innovation is “constant” over time (meaning that it does not and will not change). Getting to the point: ANT was going to have to change to spread so widely, and the ideas would necessarily be used in ways unintended and perhaps unacceptable to its originators.

Again, then, the question is: is a concept what it is, or does how it has been used constitute what it (now) is?

Latour contributed to the notion of “black-boxing” as much as perhaps any scholar of the last 30-ish years, and given his disappointment with how some of us have used his concepts, does it really matter? (i.e., this value judgment) Or, does it matter more for science not to judge how concepts have been used and instead document how they have been used because the way they have been used is effectively what they are?

Returning full circle, in all this discussion of new infrastructuralism and the infrastructural relation between “black-boxing” and “institutionalization”, what would make the best review paper? Review the terms as if they are not artifacts changing hands in order to conceivably arrive at some core meaning of these concepts, or review how the terms have been used and that this will tell us more about the operational meaning of the terms? 

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One thought on “the role of reviews in the social science

  1. It might be rhetorical, but it is not merely a matter of rhetoric. In the above citation to Latour, he mentioned that people used his concepts incorrectly, and perhaps even went so far as to say that ANT itself was never really used the way he demanded. That surprises the Latourian in me, mainly, because my thoughts — as influenced by the big questions in semiotics — land at the same conclusion you do. .It only truly hits me right now: "what does it mean to use a concept the wrong way?". That might deserve a new post.

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