terça-feira, 3 de novembro de 2009

The Political Eggs of the Chicken Debate

_by Hans Harbers and Sjaak Koenis

Woody Allen has this joke. It’s about a man who tells his friend that his brother thinks he is a chicken. So this friend says: “Why don’t you turn him in? Bring him to an asylum?” But then this man replies: “No, I won’t do that because I want his eggs.”

Seeing oneself as a chicken and being chicken amounts to a minor difference of usage, but the practical difference is substantial. In the first case, you take the person to an asylum, while in the second you stop taking him seriously. It is very possible that privately the first option has crossed the minds of the combatants in the ‘Epistemological Chicken’ debate.1 Are they out of their minds? The written statements resemble the second option. SSK-adherents, Collins and Yearley, and ANT-adherents, Callon and Latour, seem to have stopped taking each other seriously, which is even more devastating for intellectual debate. We find this unfortunate, because, as Gerard de Vries has shown in the last issue of the EASST Review,2 important issues are at stake. But contrary to de Vries we will suggest to look for the eggs of this debate in a different place, beyond epistemology and ontology. More specificly, we will discuss two related issues featuring implicitly in the Chicken debate. The first is the problem of order. How seamless is the web between science, technology and society? The second concerns the problem of (science) politics. Using the insights of twenty years of STS, how are we to ‘re-center’ political and normative questions, raised in the sixties about science and society?

The common house of STS

The ‘Chicken papers’ should not be read in isolation - as a one-time debate between Bath and Paris, between British SSK and French semiotics of science and technology. There is more at stake here. The Chicken papers are part of an ongoing evaluation of about 20 years of productive science studies. What have we reached? Where do we stand now? And where do we go from here? This is how we read Pickering’s Science as Culture and Practice.3 Comparing this volume with its predecessor of a decade ago, Science Observed,4 we have to acknowledge what Lakatos would have called both theoretical and empirical progress in the field. The 1983 volume chiefly contains programmatic papers, or main lines of research. Moreover, these research programmes are presented side by side - as equivalents. Possible conflicts, contradictions and mutual competition are rarely discussed, apart from in a few footnotes and appendices. The various approaches are presented as belonging to one Wittgensteinian family. In the volume’s introduction Mulkay and Knorr-Cetina spell out the family resemblances. Since all of them were already around in Science Observed, ten years ago the Chickens papers’ discussants still lived together in a common house - although in different rooms: Collins on the SSK-floor in the central EPOR-room; Yearley, together with other Discourse Analysts, in the cellar space immediately beneath this floor, critically reexamining the empirical foundations of SSK; Latour and Actor Network Theorists in the entrance hall, near the front door where insiders go out and outsiders come in; and Woolgar in the garden, in the little summerhouse where everything that matters in the big house is ruminated upon, reflexively. In the Pickering volume not resemblances, but differences are emphasized. Take the discussion between Lynch and Bloor about rule-governed behaviour.5 Here Wittgenstein is no longer a shared resource, but a divisive element. Pickering’s volume is not about the common house but about the differences between the rooms. There is even a skirmish about which room is most important. Who will inhabit this room? There is much envy in the Chicken debate - the British king dethroned by a French emperor.

The metaphor of a common house points to two things. First, the participants in the Chicken debate still live in the same house. Not only in terms of organization (common societies, journals, conferences, etc.), but also according to their intellectual self-image. Just as in political or in religious circles, the most rigorous denunciations are pronounced between kindred spirits. In this respect the title, and, even more so, the closing sentences of Callon and Latour’s paper are illustrative. “We want to change the water, but to keep the Bath baby in, since it is also our baby.”6 Second, the metaphor raises an interesting question. In all these years, did the house remain more or less the same, or, due to all the internal turmoil, has it been completely reconstructed? Pickering, in his introduction, observes not only a sharpening of internal contrasts and discussions, but also a general shift in STS, empirically and analytically, from science-as-knowledge to science-as- practice, from language to action, from ‘linguism’ to embodiment and ‘materialism’.7 Here the authors of the Chicken papers disagree. Broadly speaking, Collins and Yearley, we would guess, want to keep the house as it stands in Science Observed. They are quite satisfied with the SSK-project. Their motto is: further refinement and extension to new fields of research. Callon and Latour, on the contrary, are only this close to leaving the house. And Woolgar? He still lives in the garden’s summerhouse, parasitizing, however interestingly (or irritatingly if you like) on what is going on in the ‘real’ house.

The heterogeneity of the Chicken debate

Why is this debate referred to as the ‘epistemological chicken’ debate? The chicken part of this title is clear. Apparently, intellectuals are accused of being chicken in theoretical matters. Collins and Yearley point to this phenomenon within STS, but after bringing it up they refuse to play the game of chicken at all. But why do they call this game epistemological chicken? Why not ontological, methodological, sociological, or even political chicken? Because all the participants, we would claim, make it an epistemological game most of the time. Even when other sociological or political problems are at stake, the debate is recast in epistemological terms. Subject and object, word and world, relativism and realism, the problem of representation - these are the central issues to which all other items are reduced. In the Chicken debate, epistemology still functions as the traffic island in the middle of the road - as an escape route to safety. In Woolgar’s case this is obvious. His reflexive project, and, in his view, even the whole business of STS is primarily concerned with epistemological issues: “The central significance of social studies of science”, he says, “is that it adresses fundamental questions about the nature of knowing.”8 His trade is the splitting and inversion of the relation of representation between subject and object. But he is not the only one with an epistemological bias. Discussing Callon’s paper on the domestication of the scallops and fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay, Collins and Yearley, for example, contest the way Callon puts the scallops on the stage, as actants, just as active as fishermen or marine biologists. This way Callon questions sociological and political common sense. But this is not how Collins and Yearley treat Callon’s paper. They immediately return to epistemology. In Callon’s story the things-in-themselves (the scallops) can speak once again for themselves. So Callon is an old-fashioned realist setting the clock back to the days before SSK. Collins and Yearley accuse Callon and Latour of epistemological conservatism! Who is playing the game of chicken here? Even Callon and Latour are not fully recovered from this epistemological disease. However much in a negative, critical sense, their ontology still uses Kant’s yardstick to structure the discussion; it’s a yardstick which is primarily epistemologically calibrated. In order to avoid epistemological reductionism, paradoxically enough, Callon and Latour reduce all interesting questions about science, technology and society to this Kantian yardstick. Nature versus Culture, Object versus Subject, Science versus Society, Facts versus Values, Knowledge versus Politics, Non-humans versus Humans, Behaviour versus Action, Natural versus Social Sciences - all these dichotomies are pinned down to that sole yardstick. No wonder it gets overloaded to the point of breaking down. There is no reason to read the Chicken debate in such a single-minded fashion. Not every problem raised in this debate can be reduced to epistemology, or to the battle against epistemology. There is more at stake than epistemology and ontology. The chicken debate, we would like to claim, can also be read from a political and sociological perspective. In the remainder of this paper we will concentrate on the political consequences of the different solutions of Collins/Yearley and Callon/Latour to the problem of (social) order.

The problem of order

Both Collins/Yearley and Callon/Latour acknowledge the heterogeneous character of order, consisting of humans, non-humans, social relations and natural ‘things’. They disagree about the mechanism that constitutes order, and, in particular, about the role of non-humans in this respect. Aside from humans, social relations, interests, etc., Collins/Yearley also acknowledge the existence of non-humans, but only through the accounts of humans. Their order is a social order. For Callon/Latour, order is quintessentially a hybrid order of humans and non-humans. For the former, there is no order without social mechanisms. In the wider network they perceive, social entities, like group interests, ultimately hold society together. For the latter there is no order without mixtures of humans and non-humans. In the Collins/Yearley perspective, order is constituted by commuting between science and the world outside science. It is the core set which ‘funnels in’ social interests.9 Their ‘social rea- lism’ works like a camera with a zoom lens. First, they zoom in on science. At this point their social realism is Winchian. The cognitive and social order of science is created simultaneously; the stabilization of scientists’ accounts of the natural world and the stabilization of social order within the scientific community is a single process. Subsequently, they zoom out from the inner scientific circle to the world outside. Now their social realism is more Durkheimian or Bloorian.10 This time the focus is on interests and other social ‘things’. This zooming device enables them to bridge the gap between science and society, between the internal, produced order of science, and the external, pre-given order of society, which is a Durkheimian social fact of its own. This is how they bring science ‘home’ to society by stressing common features and levelling out epistemological differences between scientific and cultural practices. They want to make science ‘smaller’ than it may seem from the perspective of its users or laymen. This is accomplished by detailed description, whereby epistemological mystery and wonder is dissolved. By commuting between these two kinds of order, scientists dealing with truth and nature in an authorative way become ‘ordinary’ experts dealing in competence and skills in society. Callon and Latour want to break away from this commuting between inside and outside altogether. If you stick to the scientists, you will see how they enroll others, and make them insiders as well. There simply are no outsiders in their network. Hence their motto: follow the scientists! See how they change the world, not just the social world, but the world of humans and non-humans. The scientists are not confronted with either society or nature, but with both of them at the same time, with tangles of humans and non-humans. From the perspective of the scientists there are nothings-in-themselves or humans-among- themselves. If anything, the natural and the social are the product of the activities of scientists after tangles have stabilized, so after scientists have already moved on to more ‘fluid’ boundaries of the social and the natural.

Reading their work one cannot escape the impression that society is almost completely swallowed by science. It is not science but society they want to make ‘smaller’. This is accomplished by elaborating on the dramatic impact of science and technology on society and by more or less implying that, apart from science and technology, there really isn’t much of interest that holds society together.

Now returning to the practical problems STS wants to confront, one might ask how far we get with Collins/Yearley’s strategy. Will debunking scientific authority be sufficient for understanding the role of (scientific) experts in society? Can we understand the social basis of their power any better? If we become social realists and try to understand the social world (including science), we may find out that scientific work looks just like any other kind of practical work. But does this also give us insights into the politics of science and into the power of experts, which is obviously not entirely based on the epistemological sacredness of science? In the old days of Science and Society the problem with experts was more complicated than just their scientific nimbus, which placed them effectively outside the political realm. So, after we have made science look like any other kind of practical work, we still have to figure out the differences between what experts do and other kinds of practical work.

It reminds us of the replacement of Latin by the vernacular in the Catholic Mass some decades ago. Although this might be considered as a sign of the waning power of the Church, abolishing spoken Latin certainly did not by itself break the power of the church. Epistemology may have been one of the ways to depoliticize science, but after destroying the epistemologically legitimized aura of scientists, we are still faced with the problem of understanding their power and bringing science back into the political realm. Just like Merton reduced the sociology of science to the sociology of scientists and the social structure of science, so Collins and Yearley reduce STS to the sociology of experts with specific skills. It is true that traditional sociology (to which Collins and Yearley turn for advice) has collected ample knowledge about professionals and experts. But traditional sociology also has been weak in understanding what it is that makes these experts special (let alone powerful). Even after they have lost their scientific nimbus, they mobilize non-humans. Just think of the difference between social workers and heart specialists. Both are experts with specific skills. But while social workers can only mobilize (some) other people (usually with very little power), heart specialists can mobilize not just various other, far more powerful, professional groups, but also, and more importantly, powerful machinery. So debunking the scientists’ epistemological hegemony and making ‘normal’, skilled experts out of them results in a sociology of experts which underestimates the basis of the power of at least some of them. Within the class of experts it makes quite a difference (also financially) whether you are a social worker, a pediatrician, or a heart specialist. Callon and Latour acknowledge this difference, based on the power-generating capacity of the non-humans. Our vocabulary has been too anthropomorphic, and in particular very inarticulate about the strong positions of (some) non-humans in our society. This deficient vocabulary made us utter incoherent curses on technology and science as a whole. It made us complain about the ‘scientization’ or ‘technologization’ of society in a way that left only two choices: embrace or reject science. Accordingly, Callon and Latour reject the time-honoured humanism that saw nothing but differences between humans and non-humans.

The problem of differentiation

But once this is granted, we are left with problems related to how Callon and Latour want us to take notice of non-humans, and to their implicit claim that, apart from science and technology, there really isn’t much of interest that holds society together. Starting with the last point, while Collins and Yearley have a dual notion of order, with scientists producing order ‘inside’ and a ‘given’ order out there in society, Callon and Latour reject this duality (actually, any duality). Their notion of order is ‘productivistic’ through and through. Scientists and the non-humans they represent produce order. All the dualisms they fight against (internal - external; science - society; social - natural, etc.) are the product of this activity, i.e., the product of a second-order process of purification in the hybrid networks of nature-cultures, as Latour calls it.11 Their translation model makes it clear that it is silly to assume that one can discuss the stabilization of science without the stabilization of society.

But the converse does not hold. The stabilization of society, even our scientific-technological society cannot be completely explained by the stabilization of science. This is what we mean when we say that they seem to imply that society is completely swallowed by science. We don’t suggest to look for regions which are ‘untouched’ by science and technology, but that scientists and technologists (and the non-humans they represent) are not the only producers of order. One doesn’t have to embrace a simple dichotomy between science and technology ‘here’, and society ‘there’, to acknowledge that modern society - again, not in the least as a result of the stabilizing power of science, but also of other forces - is internally differentiated in various relatively autonomous domains like economy, politics, culture, etc. Of course, these domains and their boundaries are contested permanently - especially in late-modern, reflexive societies.12 Nevertheless, we should not too quickly toss into one basket the humans and the non-humans, subject and object, society and nature, social science and natural science, science and politics. Even Latour’s Machiavellian scientist-in-the-making does better to acknowledge this differentiation. For example, the way a biotechnologist tries to convince his colleagues in the laboratory to accept his knowledge claims differs from the way he tries to get his biotechnological project financed in his negotiations with representatives of the Ministries of Economic Affairs and Public Health Care. Of course, both activities can be labelled as ‘enrolling allies’, but this common label should not conceal the difference between these activities. Both may be called ‘politics’, but our biotechnologist has to acknowledge the difference between the two policies. Stressing the importance of social differentiation is not to defend traditional social science, and in particular sociology against all too radical realignments such as Callon and Latour seem to have in mind.

There is another reason for acknowledging differentiations in the network of science, technology and society. From the perspective of the active, network-building scientists, the natural and the social may be fluid as long as they are in the business of producing order. But from the perspective of other parties involved - policy-makers, environmental activists, consumers, etc. - science just doesn’t look the same. For them science, or segments of it, has turned into a black-box; for them it is ready-made science. Opening this black box requires a different set of strategies than closing it. Let us stick to the example of biotechnology. The starting point of the biotechnological scientist (building up a biotechnological network completely) differs from the starting point of the environmental activist (criticising that very same network). Moreover, just as the biotechnologist uses different strategies to enroll allies on different levels of his network, the environmental activist will use different strategies to open up this network. Depending on his political goals he will start at different levels to break into the network. Sometimes he will be satisfied with a minor change in the social side-effects of biotechnology; sometimes he may want to go much deeper into the network, maybe even into the (for him) ‘hard core’ of biotechnological knowledge production, becoming a colleague-scientist (that is, becoming the dissident Latour describes in Science in Action).13 Surely, all these operations can be labelled ‘political’, but we think that Callon and Latour do not sufficiently differentiate between the different operations.

The problem of politics

Indeed, the whole concept of politics is under discussion here. One of the most striking differences between the two positions under review relates to their interpretation of politics. To understand Callon and Latour’s perception of politics, it might be useful to make a little detour into the history of political ideas. We will concentrate on Latour here. Latour places socialism along with naturalism at the centre of the modernism he rejects.14 Thus he can hardly be called a Marxist in whatever meaning of this word. But in spite of this, his conception of politics (and also his ‘productivistic’ notion of producing order we mentioned earlier) bears a strong resemblance to classical Marxist interpretations of politics. First of all, according to Latour, politics is about changing society, and not (as Collins and Yearley would probably assume) about balancing interests in the political realm. What happens in the laboratory is ‘political’, because the laboratory has the ability to change the world dramatically, or, to use his vernacular, to ‘displace society’ in a way that reminds one of the imputed revolutionary power of the working class. And just as the power of the working class established a ‘fresh’ and ‘pure’ kind of politics, so the power of things constitutes a ‘fresh’ kind of politics, directly associated with science, and utterly different from traditional (bourgeois) political powers. This ‘fresh’ kind of politics has nothing to do with the traditional politics of power and counter-power, of profit, predictable goods and evils, etc. If you want to understand how science and society are interrelated, you have to take the position of (the representatives of) this new politics. If you rely on traditional politics (which is what Collins and Yearley seem te be doing) you cannot even see the tangles of science and society, let alone understand them.

With classical Marxism Latour also shares the notion of spokespersons.15 Just like the workers needed spokespersons in their efforts to conquer the political realm, so the non-humans need spokespersons to conquer society. Scientists like Pasteur speak for the microbes and other non-humans.16 They constitute the avant-garde in our scientific- technological culture. We should not, in terms of traditional politics, attribute interests or even intentions to these scientists, because their political activities become clear and obvious if and only if we follow them around. So follow the scientists (and of course Latour himself - who positions himself in turn as their spokesman) and you will be “on top of the world”. As far as Collins and Yearley are concerned, it seems safe to assume that they adhere to what Latour calls a traditional notion of politics, with interests, ideologies, profits, etc. Their view of politics includes making an effort to enhance the public understanding of science (without embracing some simple notion of popularization) and in particular a more adequate understanding of scientific expertise on the part of the general public.17 Scientists are neither prophets, nor gods, but experts with specific skills. As prophets or gods they are rightly despised, but as experts they can and should be used (and certainly not despised). They can be used in the same way other experts or professionals can be used. Latour’s interpretation of politics is, like the activist Marxist interpretation, particularly suited for breaking open the traditional political domain, for emancipating the non-humans - to grant these a voice in politics, to conceive of a parliament of things. Here lies the attractiveness of Latour’s model, because we stuffed our political domain with nothing but social ‘things’ - people, groups, professionals, social structures, votes, etc. Since non-humans play an important role in our society and politics, not just as separate entities, but increasingly mixed up with humans, we should at least let our sociological and political vocabulary reflect this state of affairs. However, from a political point of view this emancipation model is too simple (and possibly even dangerous) in a society as scientifically and technologically advanced as ours (just as the Marxist model of emancipation was too simple and dangerous).

First of all, non-humans do not need to be emancipated in general. Just like the working class, non-humans do not constitute a single class, so to speak, but a mixture of all sorts of things and animals - some powerful, like the machines of heart specialists, some powerless, like trees or animals. Technological devices in our hospitals and factories have been used for a long time. They occupy strong positions of power in our society, even though our humanistic vocabulary has not been very perceptive about this situation. But our inability to have the actions of these non-humans properly reflected in our political debates should not lead us to believe that these non-humans need to be emancipated in the same way as some other non-humans as animals, or some humans as refugees need protection. Latour’s politics of emancipation is just not subtle enough to differentiate between the various positions non-humans hold, nor can it measure their positions against those of humans. The non-humans which play a role in science and technology debates usually don’t have to be emancipated. They (or better, their spokespersons, the scientists) have to be called to account for there actions. The politics of emancipation is not very useful in our technological culture in which mixtures of humans and non-humans hold powerful positions. This political model doesn’t solve what seems to us the real problem. How can we integrate both humans and non-humans, and in particular their mixtures, into a both normatively sensible and politically effective vocabulary that is not just suited for giving these various ‘actants’ a voice, but that enables us to include the non-humans in our deliberations about justice and distribution? Like classical Marxism,18 Latour’s politics of emancipation is insensitive to normative and political problems of choice, justice and distribution. Since both humans and non-humans have to be called to account for their actions, we have to enrich our political vocabulary with ways to discuss problems that are specific for our scientific-technological society.


  1. See Harry Collins and Steven Yearley, ‘Epistemological Chicken’; Steve Woolgar, ‘Some Remarks about Positionism: A Reply to Collins and Yearley’; Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, ‘Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bath School! A Reply to Collins and Yearley’; Harry Collins and Steven Yearley, ‘Journey into Space’, all in Andrew Pickering (ed.), Science as Practice and Culture, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992, 301-326, 327-342, 343-368, and 369-398, respectively.

  2. Gerard de Vries, ‘Should We Send Collins and Latour to Dayton, Ohio?, EASST Review 14 (1995) Number 4, 3-10.

  3. Pickering, note 1.

  4. Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay (eds.), Science Observed. Perspectives on the Social Studies of Science, London: Sage, 1983.

  5. See Michael Lynch, ‘Extending Wittgenstein: The Pivotal Move from Epistemology to the Sociology of Science’, David Bloor, ‘Left and Right Wittgensteinians’, and Michael Lynch, ‘From the “Will to Theory” to the Discursive Collage: A Reply to Bloor’s “Left and Right Wittgensteinians”’, all in Pickering, note 1, 215-265, 266-282, and 283-300, respectively.

  6. Callon and Latour, note 1, 366 (emphasis in original).

  7. Andrew Pickering, ‘From Science as Knowledge to Science as Practice’, in Pickering, note 1, 1

  8. Steve Woolgar, note 1, 329.

  9. Harry Collins, Changing Order. Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice, London: Sage, 1985, 144.

  10. Compare David Bloor, ‘Durkheim and Mauss Revisited: Classification and the Sociology of Knowledge’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 13 (1982), 267-297.

  11. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.

  12. See Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990; and Ulrich Beck, Risk Society; Towards a New Modernity, London: SAGE, 1992, or idem, Die Erfindung des Politischen, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1993.

  13. Bruno Latour, Science in Action, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987.

  14. See Bruno Latour, ‘The Impact of Science Studies on Political Philosopy’, Science, Technology, and Human Values, vol. 16 (1991), 3-19; and Latour, note 11.

  15. It is because of this notion of spokesperson that we prefer the parallel with Marxism above a liberalist reading of actor network theory - as in Nick Lee and Steve Brown, ‘Otherness and the Actor Network: The Undiscoverd Continent’, American Behavioral Scientist, vol.37 (1994), 772-790.

  16. See Latour, The Pasteurization of France, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

  17. See Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, The Golem: What Everyone Should Know About Science, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993; Steven Yearley, The Green Case: A Sociology of Environmental Issues, Politics, and Arguments, London: Harper-Collins, 1991.

  18. See Steven Lukes, Marxism and Morality, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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