Genial observer of lab animals

April 7, 1995

Kam Patel talks to the man who more than any other has made the scientist a subject of social study, Bruno Latour. A nervous Bruno Latour casts an eye around the Great Hall at Imperial College, London. With half an hour left to gather his thoughts before delivering the college's annual Schrodinger Lecture, he considers the seating for hundreds stretched out in front of him. He wishes it had been a smaller venue, something a little more intimate.

A philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist, Latour is perhaps best known for his ground-breaking work in science studies, a subject which he has played a key role in establishing, and which has seen bitter clashes between its proponents and some of their research subjects - scientists.

Latour's academic colleagues were no doubt hoping that Latour, one of their biggest guns, would use Imperial's eighth Schrodinger to rebut some scientists' aggressive and sustained criticisms of their work - which involves learning about science via sociological and anthropological analysis, rather than learning science itself.

As it happens those scientists and engineers in the audience who were anticipating an attack on the objectivity of their work ended up having to keep their eggs in their pockets. Ronald Oxburgh, the rector of Imperial College, described Latour's talk as "stimulating". And John Charap, professor of theoretical physics at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, said it was a "brilliant and provocative lecture on the lessons to be learnt from observing what it is that scientists actually do and then trying to understand their behaviour." Charap added: "I resist very strongly the fashionable thesis that supposes that scientific theories are arbitrary, culture-dependent constructs. The strength of Latour's approach is that he accepts the objectivity of scientific facts without rejecting the role of the political factors which make them relevant."

At his hotel the following morning, Latour, aged 47, professor of sociology at the Centre of Sociology of Innovation in Paris, is keen to develop some of his arguments and address criticisms of science studies. He believes that last year's debate between scientist Lewis Wolpert and sociologist Harry Collins at the British Association over the question of whether or not scientific theories are socially-dependent constructs was "unfortunate, misconceived and a complete misunderstanding of the field of science studies. It was actually orthogonal to what science studies is about. It was like someone trying to convince rabbis that they must fight anti-Semitism, it was a mistake on that scale," he says laughing. He adds: "What the debate did was basically bring up the field of science studies, take up the two extreme positions, employ the most absurd definition of politics and the most outdated definition of science and then try to make a connection. And that just does not work."

For Latour, the Wolpert/Collins debate is a relic. "It was important 50 years ago when science had to defend its autonomy against the Nazis and Stalinists for example. But it has run out of steam because that kind of defence is no longer necessary." The question of whether scientific theories are social constructs or factual explanations of an objective reality, therefore, is no longer pertinent.

The debate also followed a bad line of argument politically. Latour says that in France, science studies is regarded as the ally of scientists, finding new ways of generating interest in science and technology. "We also fight the stupid humanists who consider science and technology to be awful and extraneous to the well being of society. We in science studies are the ones who show the connections with the rest of community, connections which are enriching. All science studies here and in France are completely integrated with the scientific community. We live with scientists, we work for them, we teach their students. The idea of an attack by us on science is completely absurd."

For Latour, the key area for science studies to probe is not science as such but research, a distinction that he is keen to emphasise. "Once scientific work has stabilised and is caught in text books there is not much that we can do with it that is interesting." Rather it is research, where work is "hot," that provides the most useful insights into the work and behaviour of scientists. But that does not mean that science, the "cold part of research" is being ignored: "On the contrary we are putting the content into its place, central to the rest of the related activities."

He argues that in the past, the philosophy of science has concentrated only on science in its reconstructed, rationalised, textbook form. "There is the little cooking part first where science is 'cooked' but of course we do not want to hear about that. Well, we have reversed that stand and said let's go to the cooking part first and see science in action, not as it is taught or gathered in textbooks and databanks." Scientists themselves, "despite their agitation about truth and so on," are not averse to shying away from total reliance on their colder products when it comes to justifying support for their work. "The cold part is not where they will bet their careers and start new developments and have ideas. So the paradox is that they try to sell the public a string of activities under the banner of truth for truth's sake but it is not really what they agitate for themselves. Once it is known, they move on to something else."

With most of the energy of scientists, political agencies and research managers directed at asking whether an activity is or would be interesting, Latour believes that philosophers could make much more progress in understanding scientists and science if they attempted to gain a better insight into what "interesting" means to scientists rather than, as in the past, focusing their activity on scientific truths. "Of course there are scientific truths and these can be thought of as a stabilisation. It is very important to have that stabilisation but it is not very useful in understanding research and what is happening at the margins."

He says that there is a "complete mythology" attached to the debate between scientists and researchers in science studies: "It is as ridiculous as saying that I am going to study the tectonic plate margins in the middle of the Atlantic and people on the continent, say in America, crying out that my examination is going to threaten the stability of the land on which they stand. The idea that all this is a threat to science, to people like me who have taught scientists and engineers for 20 years, seems ridiculous."

Latour's stature in the field is considerable. Andrew Warwick, lecturer in history of science at Imperial College says: "Latour's empirical studies of science-in-the-making helped to shape a new agenda for the history of science in the 1980s. As a result historians have become more like anthropologists, finding the meaning of science not in its method or facticity but in its cultural richness and diversity in the modern world."

Latour is now signalling that he wants to move on to fresh challenges in areas such as theology, law and politics. "Science studies is a big field now in which many people better than myself can contribute. I do not think I will be staying in it much longer. I cannot compete with people like Simon Schaffer and his colleagues at Cambridge University who are producing excellent work. I think I did a bit of work to start the field up but the young ones are much better trained and they know much more history of science than I do."

Latour was born in the city of Beaune in Burgundy and into the famous wine growing family which can trace its interests in the region back to 1797. His upbringing was not aristocratic though. "I would say it was more petit bourgeois. I had a very standard education." His father was actually more interested in books than in running the wine business and this perhaps helps to explains Latour's own precocious youth.

He has no regrets about moving out of the wine business into philosophy and has vivid memories of his first encounter with the subject. "At the very first class of the very first course in philosophy at the lycee, I found the light as it were. I knew then that was what I wanted to do. We spent the whole year studying Nietzsche - it was actually very daring of the lecturer. A whole year on Nietzsche!" While he does not want to oversell the French education system, he believes that 18 is the perfect age for young people to be exposed to philosophy. He likes to think of it as an infantile disease: "In France we get it early like mumps and the big advantage is that we are then vaccinated against it. The British system is much more dangerous - the kids have no access to philosophy and some people get the bug very late in life and they get very sick!" In the early 1970s, he worked as a researcher in a team studying the sociology of development on the Ivory Coast and in so doing developed a fascination and expertise in anthropology. "I learnt it the hard way, the good way, by actually doing it."

There then followed perhaps his most influential field study on the anthropology of science. The work focused on the activities of scientists at the Salk Institute in California and led to a book, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts published in 1979. Francis Crick, now president of the institute, was based there at the time. "He did not think a lot of my work I am afraid. When I gave my first talk at the institute, Francis was in the first row. He was very angry!" he says, laughing. "It was a pretty tough talk I gave - much tougher than the Schrodinger lecture. But then I was much younger."

Although he did not know Crick well on a personal level, they conversed a lot and Latour attended some of Crick's seminars. Latour recalls organising a meeting with Crick and Watson to discuss the double helix. They were interviewed by Latour and two historians. Latour still has the tapes of the interview - somehow he has never got round to doing anything with them. The meeting exposed Latour to Watson's now legendary combativeness: "It was a bit tense if I remember correctly because Watson was extremely difficult. He didn't even try to be polite. Crick is different, he is more European. He laughs at the memory and his daring at setting up such a meeting when only years old. "I organised a lot of those sorts of things when I was young and really pushed them to the limit. They were very amusing to me."

Latour stresses that at the institute he was not studying Crick. His interest was directed at the "average" scientists at Salk. "No one has to welcome being studied by an outsider. I would be wary if I thought I was being studied. But given the toughness of my attitude they were pretty welcoming." While he welcomes criticism, Latour objects strongly to scientists who regard themselves as experts in science studies and set themselves up as his judges. "As if I am the expert on my stomach when I go to the doctor with severe stomach ache. This idea that they can be experts in our area without a thorough reading and understanding of philosophy and the history of science just because they are in science is completely naive. That they read us and criticise us is on the contrary a big advantage but when they posture as judges you have to ask yourself why? There is a misunderstanding here on which we in science studies should not waiver one inch."

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments