Sunday, 7 February 2010

1: Latour on Tarde and the New Datascape

On 29th January 2010, Bruno Latour delivered the Annual Rivers Lecture at the Department of Anthropology, Cambridge University. The lecture was called ‘On Gabriel Tarde’s Idea of Society as Possession’.

Latour argued that it is worth returning to the work of Tarde (1843-1904) as he is ‘like a pre-Cambrian life form’ that reminds us that social theory could have evolved along other lines. Tarde speaks to us from a time before dualisms between structure and action, between the natural and social, between social and psychological, and between the cultural and the material, that became fundamental to sociological thought, had been entrenched. This, according to Latour, makes Tarde invaluable in an era when ‘we live in the ruins of structure’; Tarde points the way towards a successor to notions of social structure (or indeed to action as sociologists have understood it).

Tarde’s view of society as an ‘inter-possession under variegated forces’ defied simple distinctions between human and non-human actors. These actors own, take turns and lend parts in and to, associations. There is no assumption of either sovereign individuals or common interests, collective self or, indeed any, overall schema: there are neither social laws nor laws of the jungle. Instead of individuals and groups there is individualisation, aggregation and standardisation.

Although he did not dwell on this in the lecture, Tarde does service for Latour as an anti-Durkheim: Tarde’s approach challenges the notion of ‘social facts’ and of ‘society’ as something more than the sum of its parts. Hence Latour’s long (and as always droll) discussion of the apparent continuation of institutions in time. Here he critiques the refrain of sociologists that while the personnel of society might change, its structures persist. But argues Latour, something lasts because of time, not in time and it is crucial that ‘time does something’ in our analysis. ‘Structure’ is, according to Latour, ‘a sleight of hand’ that does not explain how things endure in time (what lasts is what lasts). Latour uses Tarde to argue that supposition of structure and of ‘levels’ means that we miss the processes of lasting and passing and of assemblage and re-assemblages. We should trace the paths and processes of inheritance and imitation but realise that nothing stable is being passed on, there are misfires and gaps between the transmitters.

Latour returned at a number of points to Tarde’s assertion that ‘the whole is always smaller than the parts’. Here is a rejoinder to Durkheimian accounts of society and the sociological project. I was intrigued, in particular, by Latour’s use of Tarde to discuss quantification. Tarde arued that natural scientists often had little choice but to study things ‘from afar’; they understand large numbers of objects (billions of cells for example) and perhaps could be forgiven for assuming structures. Social scientists have no such excuse: they study relatively small numbers of humans close up as insiders. Thus Tarde’s insistence that quantification in the social sciences should begin with the individual; we should measure aggregations and associations not aggregates and wholes.

Latour finished the lecture by arguing that Tarde’s vision of a non reductive statistics of association was now a practical possibility given advances in digital technology. Tarde had predicted that in the future statistics would become ‘as easy to read as newspapers’. Latour argues that a ‘new datascape’ made this a reality making all kinds of data about human life readily available and interconnected. This ‘point-to-point’ datascape is not only accessible but flexible enough to allow a redefinition of quantification as tracability of connections and disjunctions rather than the construction and use of aggregates. Latour talked of exciting future collaborations with life scientists to explore the potential of these new approaches to data and quantification.

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