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Symmetry as a methodological move, part IV

Posted by: on Oct 19, 2012 | 6 Comments

Is there a difference between hitting a nail with and without a hammer?

This is one of the provocative questions that Latour asks in Reassembling the Social (p.71). The question, of course, is rhetorical: of course there’s a difference. Using the hammer remakes—perhaps I should say makes—the activity in a very fundamental way. Perhaps holding a hammer makes every problem look like a nail, but similarly, a nail poses a very different problem when one doesn’t have a hammer.

Yet, Latour charges, classical sociology has tended to ignore the hammer and other material objects when it examines human activities. These material objects are often seen as incidental, he says, to what classical sociologists see as their real focus: social constructs, social structures, social contracts, social forces, etc. As Latour argues in his book Aramis, classical sociology sees through actors to the social structure, scrutinized through fixed frames such as norms, reason, logic, and common sense (pp.199-200). It assumes “a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon” (Reassembling the Social, p.1). It posits “the existence of a specific sort of phenomenon, variously called ‘society,’ ‘social order,’ ‘social practice,’ social dimension,’ or ‘social structure'” (p.3). This social “context” “can be used as a specific type of causality” (pp.3-4), i.e., it causes people to act in various ways. So, Latour claims, classical sociology begins with society or social aggregates; sociologists then study the effects of these causes (p.8).

Latour does not necessarily think this is a problem.

In fact, Latour says, classical sociology is like Newtonian physics. In most ordinary cases, when change happens slowly, it’s fine to use a fixed frame of reference. When you’re trying to determine with what force an object will hit the ground, knowing only the object’s mass and rate of acceleration, it’s fine to use Newtonian physics (f=ma). And if you’re studying fixed social situations, such as traditional craftwork, a fixed-frame approach such as classical sociology is A-OK in Latour’s book (literally his book: Reassembling the Social p.12).

But in other cases, we need a relativist frame. If you want to understand why atomic clocks run slower on commercial jetliners than they do at the US Naval Observatory, Newtonian physics will not get you very far; you need a relativist physics. And if you want to study situations in which “things accelerate, innovations proliferate, and entities are multiplied,” Latour says, you need a relativist sociology (Reassembling the Social p.12)—one with no fixed frames or metalanguage (Aramis p.200).

In this alternate, relativist view, “‘social’ is not some glue that could fix everything including what the other glue cannot fix; it is what is glued together by many other types of connectors” (Reassembling the Social, p.5). It’s not the cause but the consequence of the assemblage (Reassembling the Social, p.8); the social is what you get when you associate various things. Thus, in this relativist sociology, you can’t understand the social until you trace the associations among things (p.5). The things themselves aren’t social; what’s social is how they are shuffled together (p.64).

Let’s try this out with some examples.

Situation 1. Suppose you’re visiting a carpenter and his apprentice in their workspace. They’re familiar and comfortable with their tools (hammers, saws, miter boards, etc.) and with each other, and they’re doing work with which they are very familiar. Their hands are sure and their movements are smooth,  as you might expect from experienced people performing familiar tasks. In activity theory’s terms, they their work is largely operationalized, habituated to a degree that they hardly have to think about it, leaving them free to talk baseball and politics. In fact, the details and tools of their craftwork may not be nearly as interesting as other things you might be able to investigate in this fixed frame: how they bond through talk, how they represent themselves in topics, how the carpenter retains or fails to retain social dominance over the apprentice.

Situation 2. But now let’s suppose we visit a middle-aged college professor. He’s at home, working at his kitchen table, surrounded by books and papers. The window is open, letting in a breeze that repeatedly moves the papers. Suddenly he gets up, fetches a hammer from the kitchen counter, and puts it on top of a page.

Now, that’s not a completely novel use for a hammer, but it is certainly not what the hammer was designed to do. And this use snaps our attention to what we might stuffily call “the materiality of writing”—a broad set of different things (materials, artifacts, practices, people) that become associated in order for the professor to do his work. Without some of these associations, the work doesn’t turn out the same way, or perhaps at all. These different things all contribute somehow. Sometimes it’s through direct problem-solving, as in the maps and hoeys that Hutchins describes. Sometimes it’s through mediations that make the problem space more tractable, like using a hammer as a paperweight. Any thing might be an actor—”any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference,” Latour says (Reassembling the Social p.71). So the operative question is: “does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not?” (p.71).

Or as I asked at the beginning: Is there a difference between hitting a nail with or without a hammer?

When Latour uses symmetry, it’s as a methodological move: a move that focuses us on the associations among various humans and nonhumans. And since the associations themselves are the focus, the things they associate fade into the background. It’s not that nonhumans become humans or vice versa, it’s that these differences in qualities are no longer what we’re investigating. Hipsters and horses are different, but those differences don’t matter to an elevator or gravity. Professors and papers are different, but that difference isn’t the focus of Latour’s methodology.

Now let’s connect this discussion to something closer to home. Earlier I mentioned the materiality of writing, something I’ve been studying for the last 15 years. One of my first moves—conducted after reading Hutchins, but before reading Latour—was to begin describing and examining genre ecologies, which are (loosely speaking) associations of text types used in people’s work. This move was, like Latour’s, a methodological move, meant to help me focus on a specific issue: How people were solving problems by using available texts in their environments. This issue became very important to me during my first set of observations, when I discovered something that (when you think about it) should be blindingly obvious: people don’t just read one text at a time. In fact, they string together lots of texts, sometimes surprisingly large gobs of wildly heterogeneous texts, related in very different ways. Some of these are things that we would not normally consider texts at all.

My focus, that is, shifted toward the associations among the genres I saw being used in these observations, which I mapped using basic network diagrams, characterized based on qualitative data (observations, interviews, artifact collection), and compared between participants and observations. Rather than asking “How does this person read and write?” I began asking, “What combinations of texts do people need in order to get work done?” “When and why do people innovate new texts to include in these combinations?” “How do they associate these texts?” “When is one association substituted for another?” “Around which associations do people encounter the most disruptions?”

The construct of the genre ecology helped me get at questions such as these, methodologically, by helping me to focus away from individual expertise, interpretation, cognition, and social forces, and instead focusing on the associations that held these together. At the same time, this methodological move forced me to demand specific evidence for each association.

That’s not to say that genre ecologies are symmetrical in the way that Latour’s actor-networks are. Genre ecologies model associations among texts, not all kinds of entities, and those associated texts collectively mediate human activity rather than enfolding human beings into the collective activity of a system. That is, genre ecologies are still conceived within a WAGR framework. But methodologically, they constitute a similar move, one that has paid dividends for me (and, I hope, for others in my line of work).

And that’s where I want to leave this series. When Latour proposes that we study humans and nonhumans symmetrically, when I propose that we study genres in ecologies, when Newton proposes that force can be considered mass times acceleration for any mass in a fixed frame, these are not all-encompassing propositions. They are deployed only when they make methodological sense. Physicists, I’m assured, don’t look at their loved ones and see kilograms (unless, perhaps, when they’re worried about the elevator breaking down). Similarly, Latour doesn’t talk to doorknobs—unless he needs to apply that methodology to solve a particular kind of problem.


  1. Yuti Ariani
    October 20, 2012

    thanks for the very interesting review on Latour's idea on symmetry. Currently, I am digging the idea of stability in ANT, and the way you re-framed Latour's ideas give me the missing link that I've been looking for.

  2. Clay Spinuzzi
    October 22, 2012

    Glad it was useful!

  3. Yuti Ariani
    October 22, 2012

    After trying to digest it, I am wondering how symmetrical is symmetry? Since each actor is a network, can I say something about stability? How can I explain domination using ANT? To write an article for instance, I went to the field, interview people, but I also spend many hours in front of the computer writing, googling, and reading. I can say that the computer is both actor and network, something what Latour called as multiple loops, but can I say that the google is more 'stable' than my curiosity and therefore, I am the mediator?

    I acknowledge that ANT describe agency as something emerge from an assemblage/actor-network. What I am wondering is how can I isolate one event without making things complicated i.e. why people decide to plan a specific crops? But probably, my idea to simplify thing contradict John Law's question in After Method where he questions whether a complicated reality can be described easily

  4. Clay Spinuzzi
    October 23, 2012

    Yuri, sorry to take so long to respond.

    – Yes, ANT accounts for stability (in a relative sense) via translation and blackboxing. I cover this in Network Ch.3 with lots of cites, but the short version is that actants lock each other into relationships. Think of these relationships as accreting over time. You can scrape off these accretions—or to switch metaphors, these knitted alliances can unravel—but it takes effort.

    – Related: Once these accretions occur, we can black-box an assemblage. e.g., my vehicle is made of thousands of parts, but as long as they are working together as expected, I don't think of those parts, I just think of “my vehicle.” My unlucky neighbor, on the other hand, couldn't start his Acura this AM; now he's likely thinking of it as a collection of parts (“is it the starter? the alternator?”). My vehicle's still a black box—stable enough that I might see it in fixed-frame terms via conventional sociology.

    – ANT does discuss domination, but mostly in symmetrical terms. For instance, Latour discusses how we dominate things at different scales (from microbes to galaxies) by representing them on a piece of paper. In political terms, Latour discusses constructing strong alliances quite a bit, especially in his older works (e.g., Science in Action), back when he was open about being Machiavellian.

    – In ANT, every actant is also a mediator. As Callon says, “actors define one another by means of the intermediaries which they put into circulation” (1991, quoted in my book Network p.87).

    Of course, as Latour acknowledges, when you “follow the actors” you end up finding possible connections to everything—the case seems impossible to bind. My strong recommendation here would be to read Latour's book Aramis, which is basically an illustrative story about methodology and which tackles this question of bounding head-on.

    Hope that helps!

  5. Yuti Ariani
    October 24, 2012

    Helps a lot. Many thanks!

    My library only has access to your papers, not your books. Can you suggest me what paper(s) should I read to get the idea of Network? I prefer your description than Latour 😀

  6. Clay Spinuzzi
    October 24, 2012

    That's quite a compliment!

    This paper is sort of a capsule of Network:

    Spinuzzi, C. (2007). Who killed Rex? Tracing a message through three kinds of networks. In M. Zachry & C. Thralls (Eds.), Communicative practices in workplaces and the professions: Cultural perspectives on the regulation of discourse and organizations, pp.45-66. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood Pub. Co.

    And this one draws in a technique (sociotechnical graphs) that I also use in Network:

    Spinuzzi, C., Hart-Davidson, W., and Zachry, M. (2006). Chains and ecologies: Methodological notes toward a communicative-mediational model of technologically mediated writing. In SIGDOC ’06: Proceedings of the 24th annual international conference on Design of communication, New York, NY, USA. ACM Press. 43-50.

    I hope these help.

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