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Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci., Vol. 31, No. 3, pp.

503–508, 2000
Pergamon  2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Printed in Great Britain
www.elsevier.com/locate/shpsa 0039-3681/00 $ - see front matter

Discussion

Bloor, Latour, and the Field

Eve Seguin*
The debate between Bloor and Latour is based on a fundamental misunderstanding
due to too narrow a view of what Bloor calls ‘the field’. The boundaries of this ‘field’
are not defined by the sociological analysis of the content of science: SSK and Latour
do not share the same object of study. Latour’s approach marks a shift from the social
determinants of scientific knowledge to the ontological labour performed by scientific
activity. The research on the science/society interface has generated two approaches.
Some works tackle the social factors which determine science. Their object is society
in science. Other works address the social role of science. Their object of study is
science in society. The difference in the way SSK and Latour look at science is
an incarnation of this division. A re-conceptualization of ‘the field’ based on the
acknowledgement of these two objects is perhaps the only way to allow for a diversity
of approaches in the study of the science/society interface.  2000 Elsevier Science
Ltd. All rights reserved.

In ‘Anti-Latour’, Bloor remarks that the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK)


and Latour’s approach are mistakenly put together under the label ‘social construc-
tivism’ (Bloor, 1999a; p. 81). Bloor’s comment is undoubtedly right and provides
an excellent starting point to reconsider his criticism of Latour, and to understand
what is at stake in their debate. My contention is that in spite of the massive attack
he mounts on Latour’s work, Bloor underestimates the distance between Edinburgh
and Paris. The debate is not based on a disagreement but on a fundamental misun-
derstanding. This is due to too narrow a view of what Bloor simply calls ‘the field’
(Bloor, 1999b; p. 132), as if this phrase was not in need of clarification. The
resistance of SSK supporters to Latour’s approach has often been explained in
terms of the conservatism of the new orthodoxy (Friedman, 1998; Woolgar, 1992).
In what follows I try to shed new light on the debate by offering an alternative
reading of Latour’s work. This will allow me to propose a more comprehensive

* Department of History, University of Aberdeen, U.K. (e-mail: e.seguin@abdn.ac.uk)


Received 15 November 1999; in revised form 18 February 2000.

PII: S0039-3681(00)00020-0
503
504 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science

mapping of the vast domain of research that tackles the links between science
and society.
When Latour states ‘I think David is right in everything he says’ (Latour, 1999a;
p. 113), we should not see any irony in his remark. Indeed, Bloor’s difficulty in
accepting Latour’s work comes from his addressing it from the viewpoint of SSK.
Change the viewpoint and the work under attack changes accordingly. Bloor’s
thesis is that ‘the two approaches are deeply opposed’ (Bloor, 1999a; p. 81). Of
course, Latour agrees. Unfortunately, it seems to me that to read the debate in such
simple terms is to miss something crucial. Bloor’s statement suggests that the two
approaches are intended to explain the same phenomenon in divergent ways. But
what phenomenon exactly? No doubt that for Bloor, Latour seeks to develop an
alternative to SSK for studying science as knowledge: ‘His aim is to produce some
manner of non-sociological, non-reductionist analysis of knowledge...’(Bloor,
1999a; p. 86). ‘Knowledge’ is a collectively held belief system. For exponents of
SSK all belief systems are equal in the sense that their credibility is explainable
by social factors (Barnes and Bloor, 1982; Bloor, 1976). Here, we touch the greatest
achievement of SSK—that is, the secularization of scientific knowledge. But for
Latour the analysis of science in terms of belief has limited value because it ignores
the distinctive character of science as practice. Exponents of SSK do not address
this question for the excellent reason that their goal is to eliminate the gap that
epistemology builds between science and ‘irrational’ beliefs.
For Latour the interesting aspect is that science differs profoundly from other
cosmologies. The difference between science and other forms of ‘knowledge’ lies
in the activity of the laboratory. This is perhaps the most important component of
his work. His description of lactic acid, for instance, beautifully captures the impor-
tance he gives to the scientific laboratory: ‘...the acid is not presented as a substance
durable in time and defined by its attributes but rather by a collection of verbs
referring to laboratory gestures. Acid is ultimately a procedure, a recipe, and is
coextensive with a course of action.’ (Latour, 1996; p. 83). This means that science
is not to be regarded as a collection of beliefs. It is a set of procedures that activate
a reality. Latour concludes his account of Pasteur’s discovery of lactic acid yeast
by stressing the role of science in the production of realities: ‘...he [Pasteur] has
given a phenomenon its chance’ (Latour, 1996; p. 87). This clearly shows that we
are no longer in the study of science as knowledge.
Latour’s approach marks a shift from the social determinants of scientific knowl-
edge to the ontological labour performed by scientific activity. As we will see
below, such activity is political through and through, and Latour has now
accomplished the task of giving science a political philosophy. Here, the point that
must be stressed is that the boundaries of what Bloor calls ‘the field’ are not defined
by the sociological analysis of the content of science: SSK and Latour do not share
the same object of study. Insofar as SSK seeks to shed light on the social interests
that condition the formation of scientific knowledge, its object can be called
Bloor, Latour, and the Field 505

‘society in science’. In contrast, Latour is trying to theorize the social function


exerted by science. His object is therefore ‘science in society’. As he and Callon
put it: ‘We have never been interested in giving a social explanation of anything,
but we want to explain society...’ (Callon and Latour, 1992; p. 348).
The linking of science to society has a long history. Already Lukács was claim-
ing that science is a bourgeois enterprise (Freimiller, 1998). Unfortunately, it often
remains unnoticed that the study of the society/science interface has generated two
broad approaches which correspond to the objects mentioned above. The difference
in the ways that SSK and Latour look at science is an incarnation of this division.
Yet, they are seen as forming one field because they share a micro-approach,
marked in a preference for detailed case-studies. As we will now see, this feature
undoubtedly differentiates them from the other perspectives that exist for the study
of the link between science and society.
On the one hand, we find the works that tackle the upstream of science. They
scrutinize the conditions of possibility of the scientific enterprise: its method,
research priorities, funding, bureaucratic organization, ideological assumptions,
personnel training, disciplinary divisions, and so on. These critical studies come
from various quarters: Marxism, feminism, radicalism, environmentalism. They
give rise to the object I have above called ‘society in science’. The sociology of
scientific knowledge belongs here. However, as already mentioned, SSK introduces
a novelty in the study of the determinants of science, that is, a focus on the most
esoteric aspects of science, along with careful analysis of the micro-mechanisms
that account for the content of scientific knowledge. The originality of this ‘micro
turn’ cannot be overemphasized.
On the other hand, there exists a corpus of works that address the role of science
in society: its downstream. Here the point of departure of the analysis is science
itself and the aim is to assess its impact on society. The above critical perspectives
are present here too, and form the social interests thesis. They derive the social
role of science from its conditions of possibility. Being a phallocratic, capitalist
and productivist undertaking, the only function science can exert is to reproduce
the dominant social interests and the existing order. Thus, in this view science is
not granted any original activity, nor is it seen to make any accomplishment of its
own. It merely reflects the pre-existing social interests that condition it. The works
that make up the social interests thesis combine the two objects I am distinguishing
here. For instance, the feminist analysis of the reproductive technologies shows that
reproductive biology feeds on the subordination of women and, via reproductive
technologies, reinforces it. This could explain why the distinction between
upstream and downstream studies is often not perceived.
This distinction becomes evident when the technocracy thesis is taken into
account: this is the polar opposite of the social interests thesis. Studies that call
upon the notion of technocracy are diverse but can be classified into two sets. In
its limited version the thesis holds that experts within the state use scientific tech-
506 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science

niques in decision-making to reduce the uncertainty inherent in political decisions.


Science is thus transforming liberal democracy into a new, technocratic, political
regime. In the generalized version of the thesis, the complexity of contemporary
society means that every field of social activity is ruled by technoscientific prin-
ciples mastered by a new expert dominant group. Here science is granted the power
to turn industrial society into a new, post-industrial, technocratic society.
Analyses in terms of technocracy have their shortcomings. Their failure to pay
attention to the concrete business of science means that the latter appears as an
alien enterprise. Also, they tend to draw a rather gloomy picture of the impact of
science on modern society. That being said, they are very important because unlike
the social interests thesis, they demonstrate the possibility of ascribing to science
an original contribution to, and effect on, society. Crucially, Latour adopts a micro-
approach to science, but shares with the technocracy thesis a commitment to
accounting for the centrality of science in contemporary society. He has now
devised a theory of the role of science which takes the form of a political philo-
sophy treatise (Latour, 1999b).
Latour argues that at present our public life is organized in a bicameral system
that seriously impoverishes the quality of our democracy. One chamber deals with
values and society, and its political character is acknowledged: it is called politics.
The other chamber is concerned with facts and nature, and is officially apolitical:
it is called science. This organization is defective because the sociology of science
has shown that science is in fact entirely political. With their laboratories, machines
and instruments scientists perfom a collecting work, endlessly mobilizing and
adding new, non-human entities to the collective. This associative labour is the
antithesis of the unified nature of modernity whose function is, in the guise of
transcendence, to limit and constrain politics. Thus, science is the activity whereby
the natural order is decided by scientists behind closed doors. It is therefore the
last remain of an absolutist regime in which public debate and the participation of
the people are not allowed. For Latour, this anti-democratic organization calls for
a republican transformation in which the common world will be democratically
established.
This political theory clears up any doubt regarding Latour’s aims. His study of
science is a means of understanding society as a whole. Despite scrutinizing scien-
tific articles or laboratories as SSK practitioners do, Latour has crossed the border
that divides the vast domain of research on the science/society interface. Indeed,
the beauty of his work lies in the combination of close-up observation of scientific
practice with a theoretical concern in the organization of society. Crucially, his
approach opens up new possibilities for studying the political function of science.
In particular, the functioning of scientific discourse and the impact of its circulation
in the public sphere can now be analyzed (Seguin 1996, 2001).
Failure to acknowledge the existence of two different objects in the study of the
links between society and science can only prevent new explorations. ‘The field’
Bloor, Latour, and the Field 507

Fig. 1. Studies of the science/society interface.

should give way to a conceptualization along the lines suggested in Fig. 1. This
is perhaps the only way to do justice to this rich area of research and to allow for
a diversity of approaches.

References
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508 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science

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