Bruno Latour (born 1947, Beaune, France) is a French sociologist of science best known for his books We Have Never Been Modern, Laboratory Life, and Science in Action, describing the process of scientific research from the perspective of social construction based on field observations of working scientists.
As a student Latour originally agregated in philosophy, and was deeply influenced by Michel Serres. He quickly developed an interest in anthropology, however, and undertook fieldwork in the Côte d'Ivoire which resulted in a brief monograph on decolonization, race, and industrial relations. From there Latour shifted his research interests to focus on laboratory scientists. Latour rose in importance following the 1979 publication of Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts with co-author Steve Woolgar . In the book, the authors undertake an ethnographic study of a neuroendocrinology research laboratory at the Salk Institute. This early work demonstrated that naïve descriptions of the scientific method, in which theories stand or fall on the outcome of a single experiment, are inconsistent with actual laboratory practice, in which a typical experiment produces only inconclusive data that is attributed to failure of the apparatus or experimental method, and that a large part of scientific training involves learning how to make the subjective decision of what data to keep and what data to throw out; a process that to an untrained outsider looks like a mechanism for ignoring data that contradicts scientific orthodoxy.
After a research project examining the sociology of primatologists, Latour followed up the themes in Laboratory Life with Les Microbes: guerre et paix (published in English as The Pasteurization of France in 1984). In it, he reviews the life and career of one of France's most famous scientists Louis Pasteur, and his discovery of microbes, in the fashion of a political biography. Latour highlights the social forces at work in and around Pasteur's career and the uneven manner in which his theories were accepted. By providing more explicitly ideological explanations for the acceptance of Pasteur's work more easily in some quarters than in others, he seeks to undermine the notion that the acceptance and rejection of scientific theories is primarily, or even usually, a matter of experiment, evidence or reason. Another work, "Aramis, or, The Love of Technology" focuses on the history of an unsuccessful mass-transit project. More recently Latour has turned to more 'theoretical' and programmatic works. In the late 1980s and 1990s he was one of the key thinkers in actor-network theory. His more theoretical books include Science in Action, Pandora's Hope, and perhaps his most popular work, We Have Never Been Modern.
Latour and Woolgar produced a highly heterodox and extremely controversial picture of the sciences. Drawing on the work of Gaston Bachelard, they advance the notion that the objects of scientific study are socially constructed within the laboratory - that they can not be attributed with an existence outside of the instruments that measure them and the minds that interpret them. They view scientific activity as a system of beliefs, oral traditions and culturally specific practices - in short, science is reconstructed not as a procedure or as a set of principles but as a culture. Latour's 1987 book Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society is one of the key texts of the sociology of scientific knowledge, and as such has become the lightning rod of much of the criticism directed against him, such as the book Fashionable Nonsense by Sokal and Bricmont; their critics were most particularly directed against the concept of Strong Programme.
Latour has taught at engineering schools in France for over 20 years, and is currently attached to the École des Mines in Paris. He is related to a well-known family of winemakers from Burgundy, and is not associated with the similarly-named estate in Bordeaux. In recent years he has also served as one of the curators of successful art exhibitions at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien in Karlsruhe, Germany, including "Iconoclash" (2002) and "Making Things Public" (2005).
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