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An Interview with Bruno Latour

From: Configurations
Volume 1, Number 2, Spring 1993
pp. 247-268 | 10.1353/con.1993.0012

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Configurations 1.2 (1993) 247-268


Virginia Military Institute

Perhaps because he does not easily fit into traditional disciplinary categories, Bruno Latour's work has an uneven reputation in the United States. His early collaboration with Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life, was the first significant laboratory field study -- one that initiated a series of such studies and in many ways transformed the sociology of science -- yet his work remains controversial within sociology and is not commonly known by scholars outside that field. Ian Hacking recently observed that he "delights some of us and infuriates others, but, either way he has, for the past decade, been one of the most brilliant and original writers about science." 1 It is becoming increasingly clear that Latour, Professor at the Centre de la Sociologie de l'Innovation, École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris, represents a significant challenge to scholars from a variety of disciplines outside the confines of a sometimes claustrophobic (and xenophobic) sociology of science.

It is of some interest that this interview, conducted in October 1990, is positioned at a turning point in the American understanding of Latour's work. His reputation in the United States is based primarily on three books. The latter two were issued in an order different from their original publication: The Pasteurization of France (published in the United States in 1988)ó was composed before Science in Action (published in 1987). This inversion, however slight it may appear, profoundly affects the perception of his work since these books (published in this order) seem to show a clear progression from the careful description of an empirical study (Laboratory Life), to a set of methodological principles for such activity (Science in Action), to an unusual (if not downright quirky) assessment of Pasteur coupled with the aphoristic social philosophy articulated in the "Irreductions" section of The Pasteurization of France. His recent work clearly takes a more philosophic turn, as the soon-to-be-published translations will demonstrate, but this by no means implies that he has abandoned his early concern with empirical studies. Instead, it is apparent that the controversy sparked by The Pasteurization and Science in Action (and the work of the "Paris School") forced Latour into a series of philosophical and methodological debates with other groups concerned with science and society, which in turn generated a series of theoretical articles differentiating his position from others.' 2 It is clear from these exchanges that Latour's focus is now directed more toward the theoretical implications of scientific practice and that he is articulating a position whose implications extend far beyond his primary empirical concerns.

Latour has recently published a book of conversations with Michel Serres entitled Éclaircissements: Entretiens avec Bruno Latour (Paris: Bourin, 1992), and his We Have Never Been Modern and Aramis, or the Love of Technology will soon be issued by Harvard University Press. ó The issues raised by these new texts were very much on Latour's mind during this interview, so to a great extent, it offers a look back over his early work and, at the same time, begins to articulate the positions emerging in his more recent endeavors. Professor Latour was kind enough to review the text of this interview in order to refine and clarify the points he made in relation to his current work. 3

THC: Having read your recent work, it is increasingly clear that your approaches and methods do not easily line up with the concerns of most contemporary thinkers -- that you are proposing a radical shift in philosophical practice -- but positioning your work in relation to other philosopher's concerns can help sharpen our understanding, so in the beginning, I would like to proceed primarily through a series of comparisons. But first can we start with some biographical background? Your life occasionally appears in small pieces in your books. What led you to this intersection of disciplines, or to this particular node in a long and complicated network?

BL: Actually, I do not like radical departures. It is a French disease to imagine that no intellectual is worth the title if he or she does not start from a tabula rasa. No, I am firmly rooted in local traditions...


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