Call for papers: Out in the field with Bruno Latour

Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management

Due: 15th June 2023

Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar were among the most successful social scientists in bringing anthropological methods to organization studies in their Laboratory Life (1979/1986). Anticipating the wave of symbol-focused and cultural studies of organizations, Laboratory Life was the first close-up picture of work that was not done in the normative spirit of action research or “company doctors”. Unlike many later studies of organizational culture, it focused directly on the work itself, what people do when they are working, and not on such surrounding rituals as coffee drinking.

In all his works, Latour propagated a symmetrical anthropology, which best fits a scholar who accepts his suggestion that we have never become completely modern (Latour, 1993). Tables, lists, and recipes are undoubtedly the modern props of organizational knowledge, but it is equally instructive to examine non-modern modes of knowing that are still present in contemporary organizations. Oral histories may be as valid as official documents. His symmetric anthropology opened an endless row of new objects of study.

 A book that contains great many methodological insights is Pandora’s Box (1999). Especially the chapter on “Circulating reference” has become source of inspiration for young people looking for new and interesting ways of conducting field studies. In it, Latour described how he followed the chain of translations that changed the soil samples taken in the Amazon Forest into a scientific paper. The lessons for social sciences, according to Latour, were quite a few. The main was that by jumping to conclusions concerning power as the cause of events, social scientists spend too little time on objects and too much time on humans, misled by the confusion between intention (often considered a privilege of humans) and action (a capacity shared by all sorts of entities, be they human or not). This asymmetry should be redressed by a methodological and theoretical acknowledgment of the agency of non-humans and therefore their contribution to the shaping of the world. In consequence, an encouragement to follow objects (or quasi-objects) was one conclusion of this study.

In Reassembling the Social (2005) Latour wished to convince the students that scholars of “the social” need to abandon the recent idea it is a kind of essential property that can be discovered and measured; originally, the word meant something connected or assembled. The question for social sciences is, therefore, “How do things, people, and ideas become connected and assembled in larger units?” Actor-Network Theory, inspired both by semiology of Algirdas Greimas and philosophy of Michel Serres is a manual to the procedure required for answering this question. The research route begins with an identification of actants – those humans and non-humans that act and are acted upon. The researcher should then follow their trajectories – a series of programs and anti-programs – until some of the actants become actors, that is, acquire a distinct and stable character, while the others fail to do so and are only acted upon. Actants that became actors are those whose programs succeeded in combating anti-programs (alternatively, those whose anti-programs won, as in the stories of opposition and resistance). Such success is due to association achieved: the formation and stabilization of networks of actants who can then present themselves as actor-networks. Consequently, actor-network-theory, despite its name, is rather an approach to fieldwork than a theory.

Following how Latour worked, rather than only reading Latour’s works, is one of the best examples we may rely upon when conducting research and attempting to account for the world. What is more, it is not just a guide to fieldwork. Latour’s writings also show organization scholars how to combine science with literature in Aramis, or the Love for Technology (1996); and how to combine words with pictures in Paris: Invisible City (Latour and Hermant 1998/2006). Arguably, Latour did not conduct much fieldwork in his later works, for example in Down to Earth (2018) and its sequel After the Lockdown: A Metamorphosis (2021). But his symmetric anthropology remains as powerful when applied to climate change as when it was applied to life in the lab.

We know that great many management and organization scholars have been inspired by Latour’s ideas and practices, including those studying accounting, project management, operation management, marketing, innovation, technology management and many more (sub)disciplines. We call for contributions to this Special Issue that present studies informed by his multifaceted approaches to fieldwork and writings. In this Special Issue we want to show that “the Latour’s way” is still followed and constantly renewed, and that it will remain one of the most fruitful approaches to account for organizing matters.

For more information, see the CALL.

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