Tag Archives: Philosophy

::: Questions: “Promises of Constructivism” (Latour, 2000)” :::

The prominent questions raised for me by The Promises of Constructivism (Latour, 2000) are as follows:

  1. Latour critiques social constructivists for assuming that “society” is foundational and homogeneous.  But Latour is also guilty of painting social constructivists with a broad stroke.  There are different kinds of social constructivists, with different approaches and beliefs.
  2. While Latour critiques theory, saying it is quite different from practice, his approach is very theoretical.  Again, does his model match up with how scholars actually think?

The relevance of Latour’s ideas for my research:

  1. While Latour’s model is schematic and reductionist, it does bring into focus a point of view that avoids the pitfalls of both realism and endless relativism and proposes a set of guarantees to ensure the gradual construction of the common world.
  2. This common world includes more than humans.  How will these non-human actors speak and be heard?  How will scholars take them into account?  How will I factor them into my research?

Questions raised during my seminar include:

  1. Can understanding the relationships between the human and non-human help us rethink or understand society in a better way?
  2. How does the idea of the ‘knowing subject’ which has been subjected to critique in critical sociology and post-colonial studies figure into some of these ideas?

::: Summary: “The Promises of Constructivism” (Latour, 2000):::

To grasp theory, I begin with a summary of the article.

In The Promises of Constructivism (2000),  Latour sets up two horizons of belief about reality –  deconstruction (which posits endless mediations) and fundamentalism (which takes perceived reality at face value) – and offers “constructivism” as a third option that refuses to see reality and construction as mutually exclusive terms.  And while deconstruction leaves nothing to grasp in its wake, it is fundamentalism that is perceived by Latour as the real danger because it denies the very existence of the constructed. Negotiating towards a peaceful world is still possible for constructivists, but impossible with and for fundamentalists, especially at the diplomatic table.


NOTE: Bruno Latour identifies as a social scientist interested in the ways that truth is built. (Crawford, 1993, para. 7, see http://0-muse.jhu.edu.mercury.concordia.ca/journals/configurations/v001/1.2crawford.html). He acknowledges the influence of Foucault and notes that Foucault’s idea of “regime of statements” and “how they spread” “can be used as network argument”. At the same time, he expresses reservations about Foucault’s approach for its exclusion of the hard sciences. Latour explains,

“[Foucault’s] knowledge/power works for the social sciences, but what about the hard ones? My suspicion is that he has retained the typically French attitude–a complete belief in the solidity of the hard sciences.” (para 14)


To “deploy the promises hidden in this confusing concept [constructivism]”, Latour (2000) first addresses the problems of constructivism. The first is that “[w]hen people hear the word “construction”, they substitute it with the expression “social construction,” meaning that the construction is made of social stuff.” (p. 28) The social, however, is not matter but a “process through which any thing, including matters of fact, has been built”. (p.28) The “social constructivist” approach, in which “society” is considered foundational and homogenous, runs into problems when trying to explain the facts of nature (pp. 29-30) or the great variety of science and technology. In the 1990s, when scholars in the field of science and technology began to explore how science and technology provide some of the ingredients out of which solid constructs are created through a collective process (p. 30), they found themselves fighting on two fronts: against critical sociology, which posited “an unconstructed, homogeneous, overarching, indisputable “society”, and nature fundamentalists – who posited “an unconstructed, already there, indisputable “nature”” (p.30).

Latour then tackles the problems of constructivism. The first is the problem of the maker. The term “construction”, Latour states, implies that there is an agency.  He asks:

“But then by what sort of agency?” If it is an all-powerful creator who has full command of what is produced out of nothing, this is certainly not a realistic account of the building of any real structure. Even if some architects see themselves as God, none would be foolish enough to believe they create ex nihilo (Yaneva 2002).” (Latour, 2000)

Listening to humbler ways of speaking (making a dress or a soufflé) shows that makers are dealing with all sorts of constraints. Makers have to be sensitive to these constraints and to the various “things,” “agents,” “actants” with which they have to share the action.”(p. 31). What results or what is being made has a certain autonomy from the individual making it in part because of all the other actors involved in the making process. This introduces uncertainty. Latour writes,

“[…] there is no maker, no master, no creator that could be said to dominate materials, or, at the very least, a new uncertainty is introduced as to what is to be built as well as to who is responsible for the emergence of the virtualities of the materials at hand. To use the word constructivism and to forget this uncertainty so constitutive of the very act of building is nonsense.” (Latour, 2000, p. 32)

This brings Latour to the second problem, the problem of materials. He identifies three roles given the things in constructivism:  1.  Material agencies must be obeyed.  2. Things are merely plastic.  3.  Things are plastic but offer some resistance.  In experience, however, it is never so simple.  Every artist, artisan, engineer, architect, house-person and even children know that there are intermediary positions that are simultaneously occupied by agencies.

“Everywhere, building, creating, constructing, laboring means to learn how to become sensitive to the contrary requirements, to the exigencies, to the pressures of conflicting agencies where none of them is really in command.” (Latour, 2000, p. 33)

How to save constructivism?  As architects know, the reason a building stands solidly and independently of the architect is because it has been well-done. The hard work of the architect results in a well-built building.  If the work has not been “designed, planned or built” well, the it will be “shaky, unfinished, ugly, inhabitable” (Latour, 2000,p.34). Likewise with scientists “it is because they work and work well that facts are autonomous and stand independently of their (the scientists’) own action” (34).  In other words, it is not a choice between construction and autonomous reality, but a choice between good and bad construction.

Latour (2000) proposes a “Constitution” that includes guarantees from all of the participants involved in the progressive definition of the common world.  He bases this on an ordering of “social constructivists” by Ian Hacking to which Latour adds the explicit politics of the different factions. They are:

·      1st guarantee: “once there, and no matter how it came about, discussion about X should stop for good.”

·      2nd guarantee:  “in spite of the indisputability of insured by the former, a revision process should be maintained, an appeal of some sort, to make sure that new claimants—which the former established order had not been able to take into account—will be able to have their voices heard.  And “voice,” of course, is not limited to humans.”

·      3rd guarantee:  “the common world is to be composed progressively; it is not already there once and for all.

·      4th guarantee:  “humans and non-humans are engaged in a history that should render their separation impossible.”

·      5th guarantee:  “institutions assuring due process should be able to specify the quality of the “good common world” they have to monitor.

With these guarantees in place, Latour (2000) believes it is possible to retain the word “constructivism”:

“Any term will do as long as it can allow me to designate something which (a) has not always been around, (b) which is of humble origin, (c) which is composed on heterogeneous parts, (d) which was never fully under the control of its makers, (e) which could have failed to come into existence, (f) which now provides occasions as well as obligations, and (g) which needs for this reason to be protected and maintained if it is to continue to exist.” (p.40)

Latour suggests that this solution will probably fail because of the association of constructionism and “deconstruction”.  Like fundamentalists, deconstructionists believe that “if something is built, that alone is a proof that it is so weak that it should be deconstructed until one reaches the ultimate ideal they all share, namely what has not been built at all by any human hand” (p. 41).  Yet constructionism and deconstructivism have divergent goals:  while both insist on the “impossibility of any direct access to objectivity, truth, morality, divinities, or beauty”, deconstruction emphasizes absence while constructionism tries “to catch as much presence as possible” (p. 41).

This article raises questions. See: http://wp.me/pwOVP-46



Latour, B. (2000). The Promises of Constructivism. In Don Ihde and Evan Selinger (Eds.). Chasing Technoscience: Matrix for Materiality (pp. 27-46). Indiana: Indiana University Press.