Thursday, November 12, 2009

Localism and assemblage theory

Several earlier posts have described the idea of "methodological localism" (post).  This is part of an argument I want to defend in support of the idea that we need new and better ways of thinking about the "stuff" of society. We need to thoroughly question and rethink the assumptions we make about social objects -- groups, mentalities, structures, forces, power, states, and organizations. In short, we need a better social ontology -- one that is free from the patterns of thinking we have inherited from positivism and the natural sciences (post).

Here is the thrust of methodological localism. The only ontologically stable stuff that exists in the social world is the socially constructed and socially situated individual actor, embedded within a set of relationships with other concrete social actors. There are higher-level social frameworks -- police departments, professional soccer leagues, and civil wars. But these higher-level structures and events derive all their properties and powers from the extended systems of local activity that they encompass. And they are plastic and deformable in their properties over time (post, post).

One way to put this point is to say that higher-level social structures and entities are only composites or assemblages of lower-level structures, all tracing back ultimately to an extended set of local contexts of activity (post).

And this paraphrase brings the view into some kind of relationship with the theory of "assemblage" that has emerged from several strands of continental thought, including especially some writings of Gilles Deleuze. Manuel DeLanda's book A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity presents an appealing and accessible version of the perspective. Nick Srnicek's master's thesis "Assemblage Theory, Complexity and Contentious Politics" is a good exposition and critical discussion of the theory.  And Bruno Latour's book Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory provides a coherent and useful reconstruction of "actor-network theory" (ANT) within the general framework of assemblage theory.

Latour's theory stems significantly from the tradition of "social construction of technology" and recent sociology and history of science and technology. Reassembling the Social is a radical call to action in the social sciences. Latour wants us to dispense entirely with traditional sociological concepts when they purport to refer to fixed, stable social things.  And he wants a new conceptual scheme that puts the emphasis on relationships and associations, on dynamic patterns of action and coordination, rather than on structures and institutions.
The argument of this book can be stated very simply: when social scientists add the adjective ‘social’ to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is already assembled together, without making any superfluous assumption about the nature of what is assembled. Problems arise, however, when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden’, ‘steely’, ‘biological’, ‘economical’, ‘mental’, ‘organizational’, or ‘linguistic’. At that point, the meaning of the word breaks down since it now designates two entirely different things: first, a movement during a process of assembling; and second, a specific type of ingredient that is supposed to differ from other materials.(1)
The key task for social science research, according to Latour, is systematic tracing of compound associations among diverse elements.  Here is a description of what this might mean:
In such a view, law, for instance, should not be seen as what should be explained by ‘social structure’ in addition to its inner logic; on the contrary, its inner logic may explain some features of what makes an association last longer and extend wider. Without the ability of legal precedents to draw connections between a case and a general rule, what would we know about putting some matter ‘into a larger context’?  Science does not have to be replaced by its ‘social framework’, which is ‘shaped by social forces’ as well as its own objectivity, because its objects are themselves dislocating any given context through the foreign elements research laboratories are associating together in unpredictable ways.
And the same is true for all other domains. Whereas, in the first approach, every activity—law, science, technology, religion, organization, politics, management, etc.—could be related to and explained by the same social aggregates behind all of them, in the second version of sociology there exists nothing behind those activities even though they might be linked in a way that does produce a society—or doesn’t produce one. Such is the crucial point of departure between the two versions. To be social is no longer a safe and unproblematic property, it is a movement that may fail to trace any new connection and may fail to redesign any well-formed assemblage.  (7,8)
The social realities of "law", "science", or "technology", then, are to be understood in terms of the network of associations that they encompass among actors and other elements.  These social "things" are not static realities, but rather assemblages of dynamic actor relationships or "associations".

John Law provides a similar statement of some of the fundamental starting points of ANT in "Notes on the Theory of the Actor Network" (link), emphasizing the same skepticism about existing assumptions of social ontology:
Here is the argument. If we want to understand the mechanics of power and organisation it is important not to start out assuming whatever we wish to explain. For instance, it is a good idea not to take it for granted that there is a macrosocial system on the one hand, and bits and pieces of derivative microsocial detail on the other. If we do this we close off most of the interesting questions about the origins of power and organisation. Instead we should start with a clean slate. For instance, we might start with interaction and assume that interaction is all that there is. Then we might ask how some kinds of interactions more or less succeed in stabilising and reproducing themselves: how it is that they overcome resistance and seem to become "macrosocial"; how it is that they seem to generate the effects such power, fame, size, scope or organisation with which we are all familiar. This, then, is the one of the core assumptions of actor-network theory: that Napoleons are no different in kind to small-time hustlers, and IBMs to whelk-stalls. And if they are larger, then we should be studying how this comes about -- how, in other words, size, power or organisation are generated.
I said above that there is a convergence between methodological localism and assemblage theory. But it is an uneasy convergence, on both sides. What the two perspectives have in common is easiest to identify. Each calls for a radical rethinking of social ontology. Each emphasizes plasticity, heterogeneity, and contingency in social life and structure. And each works with a metaphor of construction or composition as a way of understanding complex social stuff -- cities, for example (post).  So far, so good.

But I have a suspicion that Latour would have more to criticize than to applaud in my approach. For one thing, it may appear to be reductionist: it attempts to ground social statements and theories in facts about the local circumstances of action. And it is unsympathetic to the idea of "emergent" social properties -- properties of the social whole that do not derive from the properties of the underlying social actors and their behavior. (Though see this post for a qualified defense of holism.) Further, contrary to Latour, my perspective asserts that there is a distinctive domain of social stuff; it is the domain of purposive actors in interaction, cooperation, and competition with each other. Third, the ML approach provides a basis for attributing relatively stable causal powers to higher-level social structures -- provided we can offer appropriate microfoundations for these powers (post). Finally, in spite of my insistence on not reifying higher-level structures, Latour would probably still feel that I'm giving a degree of "thing"-ness to states and organizations that is inconsistent with his view of sociology as a study of associations among actors rather than a study of social entities and forces.

These considerations suggest there are important disagreements between the views. However, it still seems to me that there are important areas of convergence between the two bodies of thought as well: the need for a new social ontology, emphasis on the composition of the social, and an insistence on the fluidity of social life.

What seems particularly worthwhile is to probe in detail how either perspective may turn out to have real utility when it comes to framing an empirical research programme in sociology. How does either perspective help to contribute to a more successful empirical study of society?  If it is just philosophical theory with no implications for doing better science, then neither framework should be taken seriously by working social researchers. But I think there is concrete practical value in these ideas; most fundamentally, if we misconceptualize a domain of inquiry, we are not likely to succeed in understanding it.  Delanda, Latour, and other theorists of assemblage are worth reading carefully.

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