ANT and ethnography

While the corpus of ANT research is full of ethnographic accounts, not all ANT is ethnographic. In fact, foundational work in ANT tends toward socio-historical accounts of science and technology. For example, in Latour’s (1987) work in Science and Action, which stands as the invitation to follow the actors, Latour conducts no firsthand ethnographic fieldwork. Through the lens of ANT, and as a way to hash-out constitutive concepts, he reviews historical portrayals of the genesis of scientific facts, for instance, that DNA is a double-helix, and the spread of engineering artifacts, for instance, the rise of diesel locomotives. Likewise, published shortly after, Latour (1988) presents the STS community with a historical revisionist attempt at re-telling the rise to prominence of Louis Pasteur through the lens of ANT.


(my favorite passage from The Pasteurization of France)

As Hine (2007) suggests, ethnography is also not the way, or even the best way, to conduct ANT accounts of socio-material or historical phenomenon. Law’s (2002) work, especially his early work on aircraft design and related “stories” provides a rich empirical-grounded methodological alternative to ethnographic fieldwork as was his iconic ANT-imbued exploration of Portuguese sailing. Hence, there are many ways to “follow the actors” without following them “on foot” during participant or observation data collection.


(best part of the cover of Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience)

And yet, ethnography appears to be a straightforward technique for understanding one of the latest and most important concepts in ANT, namely, multiplicity. The concept — as an alternative to fragmentation as a conceptualization of a lack of fixity or stability — was implied in early ANT research and, in a number of forms, has occasionally appeared in STS work over the last three decades. However, it was not until Mol’s (2002) The Body Multiple, an unorthodox ethnographic account of atherosclerosis of leg arteries, that a robust and coherent statement was made about how to observe multiplicity in practice. Seeing medicine as a practice rather than a body of knowledge provides the analyst with an important affordance: “what we think of as a single object”, for example, a body or a disease, “may appear to be more than one”, hence, she shows how atherosclerosis is at once a singular, seemingly unified object (i.e., a disease) composed of many things because “plaque cut out of an atherosclerotic artery is not the same entity as the problem a patient with atherosclerosis talks about in the consulting room, even though they are both called by the same name” (Mol 2002:vii). However, these are not merely different social perspectives about the same object (i.e., the disease) dividing doctor and patient because this is not just another pluralist account. In principle, post-ANT studies like Mol’s are post-pluralist, which implies that adding another perspective to a scholarly account will not make the account somehow more truthful, representative, or accurate. However, social scientists, for example, of medicine have often used this trope in their research accounts. They differentiate “disease” from “illness”, the former representing the medical perspective of doctors and the latter accounting for the personal, emotional, and social experience of being a patient living with illness, which they claim doctors tend to miss, ignore, or fail to account for from their medical perspective. Thus, sociologists did not get mixed-up competing with doctors over the truth of the object of biomedicine (i.e., the disease) and instead claimed that the social dimension of disease (i.e., illness) was an added layer of meaning representing the patient’s perspective. In ANT, however, Latour (2005) challenges the idea that a social dimension exists separate from the material world. In a non-trivial challenge to sociologists, Latour demands to know how “the social” can at once be a special dimension of reality, which social scientists have access to thanks to their methodologies, and the broader context that influences the everyday life of individuals and a description of how individuals are linked together through network ties (i.e., associations). Social scientists routinely oscillate between these three registers in their accounts of the social (i.e., dimension, context, and network ties), which, reflexively, appears to be a readymade case study in multiplicity in sociology about sociological practice. Latour suggests that an emphasis on associations is the surest way to return sociology to its roots. For once we shift to the practice lens, the core epistemological concern that truth faithfully represent the nature or reality of an object, human or nonhuman, is no longer sufficient as an endpoint of analysis. How knowledge practices are enacted, overlap, and hang together, therefore, becomes the empirical question and ethnography appears to be the preferred method for scholars to observe multiplicity unfold.

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

One thought on “ANT and ethnography

  1. Pingback: What Would Wallace Write? (if he were an ethnographer) | Installing (Social) Order

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