- From Dyes to Iraq:A Reply to Jonathan Harwoood
Politics entered one of those febrile nervous phases in which events seem to be moving towards some momentous but unknowable climax almost independent of the wishes of the actors.Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years.
I need to respond to two aspects of Jonathan Harwood's critique (this volume) of my paper "Decentering Sociology: Synthetic Dyes and Social Theory" (SDST hereafter): first, that the position I articulate there is no different from the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), and second, somewhat paradoxically, that it is historically debilitating. Along the way I can try to clarify my usage of evolutionary metaphors.
A central argument of SDST was that the history of science and technology is more adequately told as a decentered interplay of the human and the nonhuman than as a process centered on the human actors alone. I argued, that is, for a "posthumanist" perspective rather than the "humanist" one definitive of the orthodox social sciences. I take SSK to be exemplary of humanist social science, so Harwood's identification of SDST with SSK is disturbing. Let me explore this. In relation to my study, Harwood asserts the following (p. 412):
[T]he only reason chemists began to search for such pathways [of dye synthesis] in the first place was because of the social and economic processes favoring the emergence of such an industry. It would appear, therefore, that primary causal importance should be placed on social processes which prompted certain kinds of research which then fed back upon—and altered—the social domain. But how does this account differ from SSK? [End Page 416]
The answer to Harwood's rhetorical question is contained in his previous sentence. If he had ended it after "prompted certain kinds of research" he would have remained in the domain of SSK. What I aimed to document and analyze in SDST, however, was how research can "feed back upon and alter the social domain" (thus decentering the analysis away from the human and calling into question the "primary causal importance" that humanist theory would like to ascribe to social processes). Let me try to clarify what is at stake here.
The easiest way to get the hang of SSK is to remember Barry Barnes' oft-repeated dictum: the world does not care what we say about it.1 I can call my computer a banana or Saddam Hussein and it continues processing my words in just the same way. And this, of course, raises the question of why I and many other people are, in fact, disposed to call my iMac a computer and not a banana. If it is not the thing itself that calls me to account when I misuse these words, the SSK story goes, it must be people; other people insist I call it a computer; we have to look to the social and language use to understand such acts of classification. Note here that we have slid from what might appear to concern a relation between a human and a thing (me and my computer) to a relation just between humans. Barnes' dictum thus has the effect of pushing us in a humanist direction: towards the documentation, analysis, and theorizing of a purely human realm in which the material world has been shuffled into the margins or beyond. There is thus no scope whatsoever left in SSK to think about how "research can feed back and alter the human and the social."
There are more formal ways of setting up the SSK problematic, canonically via a discussion of the philosophical position called finitism (Barnes, Bloor and Henry 1996, ch 3). Again this takes as its object acts of classification and concept application. It is observed that we know the meaning of terms through a finite number of instances grouped under any classificatory heading, and that such a finite list is never enough to determine how the next instance will be classified. Therefore, the reasoning goes, something else must make that determination, namely, the social. Tradition, authority, interest, social structure or whatever must be of "primary causal importance" in our classifying practices. Again, this formal argument shuffles the...