First Source of Uncertainty: No Group, Only Group Formation

Latour starts, “in the middle” by using the newspaper as a case study to show that the social is made up of the connections between things. He states, “relating to one group or another is an on-going process made up of uncertain, fragile, controversial, and ever-shifting ties … [in which] actors are made to fit in a group” (p. 28)

Latour identifies that there are contradictory group formations and group enrollment.  And the first uncertainty is thus that “there is no relevant group that can be said to make up social aggregates, no established component that can be used as an incontrevertable starting point” (p. 29).  In other words, there is no there, there. There is no social, just being social.

A List of Traces Left By the Formation of Groups

There are many ever-shifting frames of reference, but that does not mean that sociologists should despair.  Every shifting frame leaves a trace that can be looked at to understand group interaction better. Latour writes “Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made my the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what” (p. 31). Social actors are always engaged in mapping their own social context, and thus the context that each actor situates his or herself in is very important.

Here Latour sets up the division between what he calls the “sociologists of the social” and the “sociologists of associations”(p. 33).  Sociologists of the social, see the social as a thing that people interact in, whereas sociologists of associations see the social as something that changes because it is constructed by social actors in and through every interaction.

No Work, No Group

Latour writes, “What we have lost – a fixed list of groups – we have regained because groupings have constantly to be made, or remade, and during this creation or recreation the group-makers leave behind many trances that can be used as data by the informer” (p. 34).

On the other hand, however, it also must be noted, that if a group engages in no action, Latour is very clear that it is not a group.  Being is in action, at least as far as Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) is concerned. Latour calls this a performative definition of the social (p. 35). Latour writes, “neither society nor the social exists in the first place. They have to be retraced by changes in connecting non-social resources” (p. 36).

Mediators vs. Intermediaries

Latour sets up the distinction between the ostensive and the performative thusly, “the object of an ostensive definition remains there, whatever happens to the index of the onlooker. But the object of a performative definition vanishes when it is no longer performed” (p. 37). He sets up two ideas that are crucial to the performance of the social, the ideas of mediators, and intermediaries.

An Intermediary transports meaning without transforming it.  Latour describes an intermediary as a black box. Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning of the elements they carry. Groups are constructed via many tools, and by many means – but if the tools for group construction are treated as mediators rather than intermediaries it changes the nature of the group. Sociologists of the social, view groups as made up of many intermediaries, and few mediators.  Sociologists of association take the opposite view.