beyond “conviction” as the product of social constructions

This is a coda to my last post about the semiotic (interactional, conversational) aspects of all collective processes (including science, schooling, etc.).  Lim, in his answer to the exam question about Bourdieu’s response to Latour, quotes a statement about “how a fact takes on a quality which appears to place it beyond the scope of some kinds of sociological and historical explanation” and how a “laboratory is a system of literary inscription, an outcome of which is the occasional conviction of others that something is a fact” (Latour and Woolgar 1979: 105).

As Latour now would well know, this statement is possibly dangerous as written if one takes literally or seriously words like “appearance” or “conviction.”  This is the kind of writing that allows for the critique of much “constructivism” for assuming more or less explicitly that the product of “social constructions” is a mental state that will unnoticeably confuse the person now psychologically “convinced” that some (scientific, etc.) statement is indeed a “fact” (or any other relevant entity).  What Latour demonstrated elsewhere (Latour 1987: 14) is that a statement like “the DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix” has multiple lives as it moves from setting to setting.  For example, the statement’s social power will differ whether it is the first time the statement was produced at some unique moment in the past, or whether it is some other settings such as scholarly papers demonstrating or critiquing this statement, or conversations among scientists, and then in textbooks, or now in works in the sociology of science.  In his work, Latour has started giving some indication of what happens as a statement is “taken on the collective mode” (Lévi-Strauss 1969).  But this conversational process which, after a while, produces an intertextual web of multiple consequences, is one that must be traced ethnographically through the various settings within which the statement appears.  Above all one must not prejudge what will happen to the many human beings who will hear the statement and then incorporate it in their own practices.

A fun version of this, which is also a call for anthropological proposals, can be found in the Jorge Cham’s cartoon about “the science news cycle” (2009).

And, of course, this is what I am trying to do with Jill Koyama, Ray McDermott and Aaron Hung.

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