file0001287158192How does one study the practice of engineering? What is engineering? How is it done? Etymologically, “engineering”, similar to ingenious, takes as its root the Latin ingenium or ingeniare which roughly mean “cleverness” and “to derive” respectively. In Middle English it curiously refers to a designer of weapons and fortifications though in the modern era according to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Engineers Council for Professional Development classifies engineering thusly,

“…scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes, or works utilizing them singly or in combination; or to construct or operate the same with full cognizance of their design; or to forecast their behaviour under specific operating conditions; all as respects an intended function, economics of operation and safety to life and property.”

Is engineering akin to skill? To science? To politics? What is involved in engineering? Whatever the case, it does appear self-evident that engineering is inextricably linked to technology and production, though those concepts do little to clarify.

Despite that technology as a topic for anthropological inquiry heterogeneously emerges in various places including scholarly discourse of exchange, manufacture, association, cognition, political economy etc; it is generally believed that, at least historically speaking, technology qua technology is relatively under analyzed in philosophy (Bijker et al. 2012), notable modern exceptions notwithstanding (Heidegger 1954, Ihde 1990, Verbeek 2010, Winner 2010). Says philosopher of technology Langdon Winner, “Perhaps the most accurate observation one can make about the philosophy of technology is that there really isn’t one.” (Winner 1983)

At once it is hard to imagine how this is so given, as noted above, the ubiquitous nature of technology in adjacent academic discourse, namely anthropology and in particular archaeology, though this paucity is attributed largely to the mundane nature of the topic. Fortunately this dearth of philosophic attention affords an opportunity for the social sciences to develop theory from the ground up rather than, as is more typical, borrow from the voluminous annals of prior philosophical thought. And of course many anthropologists, sociologists, and archaeologists have made exactly that attempt to varying degrees of success, some of whom decide, after all, that they are indeed philosophers (Latour 2010).

Making, craft, and production are perpetual topics of anthropological study from innumerable perspectives in all variety from the more formal Marxian emphasis on modes of production to the less structural interpretive viewpoint.

Somewhat more narrowly, the practice of engineering in particular has of course, if not frequently, been addressed from a few diverse directions. Most explicitly engineering has been approached from the ethnomethodological perspective (for example see Lynch 1997, Suchman 2000); and from the Science, Technology, and Society perspective (for example see Latour 1996, MacKenzie 2004, and Collins and Pinch 2014 among others). Historical archaeology has a role in conceptualizing projects of the sort associated with engineering, or at least construction (see Deetz 2010, Simonds, Badcock, and Oliver 2013) as do phenomenological (Ingold 2007, 2013), cognitive anthropological (see for example Dougherty 1982, Keller and Keller 1996), cognitive archaeological (for just a few examples see Knappett and Malafouris 2008, Malafouris 2013, Wengrow 2013) approaches.

Evidently there are numerous entry points into the topic depending on the research question. The questions of interest here are roughly “How does engineering happen?”, and “Why does engineering take this form?”

These questions operate together to do two things. The first is intended to describe a system; the second is to understand that system in relation to other intersecting systems.

With this as a tentative starting point, my project is intended to formulate an initial position by which I can approach an anthropological study of engineering practice. This initial position is neither theoretically nor methodologically determined a priori and is instead a partially equipped trajectory.

Mine is not [yet] another attempt at grand theory building (example Hodder 2012, Latour 2013) but is instead an attempt at synthetic integration of three such scientific, or at least scholarly, approaches to technology toward the production of a wider, more integrated, data set from which to abduce systematic patterns which ultimately cohere into robust and justified theoretical claims in answer to the above questions. It is the hope of this endeavor that such synthetic integration facilitates contribution to philosophical discourse and to knowledge more broadly.

As much as anthropologists, such as myself, naively aspire to craft theory from data alone, it needs to be said that no endeavor can start in a vacuum devoid of initial theoretical premises (what are considered data?) and so, for the sake of forthrightness and just moving along, this project temporarily rejects radical epistemological nihilism and solipsism in assuming generally that materialism and causality; and methods of empiricism and rationality are problematic but useful. That said, the understanding that these methods and their referent concepts contain familial resemblances of historically associated definitions, perspectives, and attitudes is sustained throughout, following Feyerebend (1993) and to some extent Hodder (2012), in somewhat anarchic, or plural, fashion. This suspension, however, should be taken not as an ideological commitment but instead as an appeal to inquisitive epoché. Any synthetic effort, then, is anticipated to be incomplete and a mere step toward understanding. In short, developing a closed formal system is not my aim.

With both this caveat and our research questions in mind, there are programs more suitable to approaching this study than others. First, insofar as materialism is indeed one tentatively held predisposition, the following proposal assumes the familiar by now precariousness of the dualisms dividing subject/object, nature/culture, and whatnot. Space doesn’t permit yet another elaboration of these notoriously intractable problems; instead I assert the necessity of including objects, things, or materials as candidates for analytical units (or as is cliché, taking things seriously) following a strong line of prior scholarship (Latour 2005, Henare et al. 2007, Hodder 2012, etc). Second, intentional naïve empiricism is assumed to be more or less generative of data and underpins the approaches endorsed below.

Given the above, and in order to articulate the process by which engineering is done, one perspective loosely assembled under the title Science Technology and Society, or STS, appears to be the most productive for reasons further outlined below. Following the articulation of the engineering process we are necessarily faced with the question as to why a given form of engineering is as it is. For this there are a multitude of viable programs depending upon ones’ requirements for satisfying causal explanation. For purposes of this study, the primary concerns are those conditions responsible for the particular form of the engineering assemblages observed. This point too will be elaborated below, for now it is enough to say that this question entails two trajectories to defining conditions; and these trajectories are not necessarily extricable. These are cognitive and historical archaeologies for the fact that they are naively empirical (by which I mean empiricism is not the topic of inquiry), materialist (they are especially suitable for engaging material properties of things, and they are potentially conciliatory within the theoretical framework of STS.

Framework | STS

For the purpose of this study, an inquiry into the mode of engineering, it is necessary to roughly frame the means by which any such inquiry could be undertaken. Taking as a starting point Science, Technology and Society (STS) as a loose disciplinary framework, one can situate this study as intended toward explicating the practice of engineering independently of, but potentially consonant with, the particular aims and goals of engineering itself. This stance toward engineering is adapted from the stance toward science David Bloor (1991 [1976]) describes as methodological symmetry. Adapted here, Bloor’s model implies that causal explanations of phenomena must not bifurcate along a true/false axis, which is to say, engineering failures and accomplishments must be symmetrically describable as social phenomena whether these phenomena are considered success or failure by engineering standards. Bloor further offers four principles for the social study of science.

“1. It would be causal, that is, concerned with the conditions which bring about belief or states of knowledge…. 2. It would be impartial with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality, success or failure. Both sides of these dichotomies will require explanation. 3. It would be symmetrical in its style of explanation. The same types of cause would explain, say, true and false beliefs. 4. It would be reflexive. In principle its patterns of explanation would have to be applicable to sociology itself. (Bloor 1991 [1976], 5)

Embedded in this rubric is the condition that “social” is a domain operationally indistinct from those domains to which engineers appeal for causal validity. Importantly, there are a few ways this can be conceived. The first is that those interactions described as “social”, traditionally the purview of anthropologists studying non-modern societies, are not quarantined outside of the scientific laboratory (Latour 1979) or in this case, the engineering laboratory. Instead, the dynamics of social interaction very much exist (and in some instances are created) in and among the procedures and tools of scientific practice. The second implication suggests that those social interactions, inside and outside the lab, are as concrete as the methods by which humans interact with things such that there is no such division between “social interaction” and other interaction. In terms of association, all interactions are social.

Then, following fellow sociologist of science, Bruno Latour (2005), it is important to distinguish “construction” from the rightly critiqued “social construction” for its eschewing of that misleading modifier “social” suggesting that there are distinct incommensurable domains. Because we are not to distinguish these domains, this approach necessitates identifying the unit of analysis as an association of humans and nonhumans assembling through various means and techniques; and thus privileges the methodological capacity of neither humans nor things. Latour draws upon Gabrielle Tarde and Harold Garfinkel to make the respective cases that things exist as heterogeneous associations at multiple levels and that social facts are the methods by which actors associate. Together, through Latour we arrive at the principle of irreduction (Latour 1993: 158) where objects are not reducible to other objects. All objects are indeed unpackable black boxes, but these assemblies interface through networks across multiple scales such that one person may interface with a School of Engineering, for example, despite that the method of interface may be an individual representative associated with procedures, forms, other people, standards, a building, and a telephone.

Prior to Latour’s massive current project, the anthropological study of the Moderns (2013) and their Modes of Existence, Latour outlined, through what was to be called Actor Network Theory, a means by which an anthropologist might simultaneously account for human and non-human association while circumventing the perennial dualisms complicating accounts of social action. More specifically, it is through this method that Latour provides an ability to speak of scientific practice as a traceable series of translations (Latour 1987) between what he calls actants, which can be human or nonhuman social agents. The traceability of these translations is what accounts, following Garfinkel, for their ontological status as existent phenomena, in other words, history is traceable through every interaction, and thus there are no valid explanations beyond what exists at the event in question.

Through this perspective, engineering practice can be observed through a description and analysis of the way in which engineering projects are enacted and sustained. A model for this is Latour’s own account of the transportation system Aramis to be built in Paris (1996). Here Latour traces the interactions between humans and things, such as documents, standards, and tools, as they attempt to actualize the production of this transportation system. Similarly, Bowker and Star (2000) demonstrate the acting capacity of classifications and standards in treating them as agential objects.

As robust as this account is, and it does indeed appear to answer “How is engineering done?” it may be an incomplete model approach for answering the questions identified above, namely, “Why does engineering take the particular form it does?” principally because actants are underspecified, human or otherwise. Here we are confronted with the task of not only providing a framework for the ways in which practices are sustained among associates, but we are tasked with specifying the nature of those associates in their affording these associations. In short, while the Latourian model is equipped to describe the methods of translation enabling the alliances present in a current system, it is less so equipped to describe change- a product of a systems diachronic transformations. The keys to identifying the points of articulation are the forms of the actants themselves.

Putting a bit more Act in Actant

Timothy Ingold is skeptical of Latour’s framework but requires engagement for his attention to the ways in which humans make things- diachronically at multiple scales. Being a phenomenological oriented cultural anthropologist Ingold finds that there is no conceivable symmetry possible among humans and things and further that the account of networked actants is misleading and inert. Preferring “meshworks” to describe associations (Ingold 2008: 212) Ingold stresses that agency is distributed throughout relations and is not the quality of any individual person or thing. Contra Latour, for whom all actants, human and not, are defined by their possession of agency, Ingold follows Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze among others in asserting that things or humans, are not extricable from what they are doing or are intended toward. More so, the talk of agency is,

“as tautologous as the functionalism it replaced: where before, if the presence of a thing has effects (and it would not be present if it did not), these effects were attributed to its functioning, nowadays they are attributed to its agency. The argument is no less circular, and equally ridiculous, especially coming from the mouths of celebrity philosophers… We have had more than enough of both agency and materiality, and they have got us nowhere. (Ingold 2014)

Of course a closer reading of Latour (2005), suggests that the alleged tautology is no mere sophistic mishap but a definitive stance on inclusion and exclusion criteria for what Latour calls “mediators”, those actants responsible for interesting or relevant action, in contrast to “intermediaries”, those actants who are functionally irrelevant. Each possesses agency regardless of effect, or actualization of agency, the principle difference is whether or not actants modulate input. Recall that for Latour, interactions are instances of translation. Despite this, Ingold’s critiques should be noted. The first is that ANT, insofar as it is born out of the agency debate, is mere functionalism; the second is that agency is distributed among relations.

What does distinguish the Actor Network approach from Functionalism? The simplest answer is merely that what are being described aren’t functions at all but associations. That these methods cohere more or less into goal directed entities is beside the point. Put simply, functionalism describes purpose toward which activities, such as ritual, taboo, or exchange, incline. The ontological status of a purpose then is an abstraction, or in the ethnomethodological vocabulary, account. Instead, what are described in ANT are actual associations and the methods by which they cohere. To arrive at a function this way is to make a category mistake. There are indeed purposes for behavior within the purview of sociological inquiry, the purpose is to successfully accumulate allies (or expand one’s actor network) and the work of social science is to describe how this is done. The purpose of these associations, however, is best left answered by the agents involved- “science”, “religion”, “law”, or “engineering”. Eschewing abstraction by refocusing the goal of social science, reworking Durkhiem’s aphorism (Garfinkel 2002) requires that people, or things, speak for themselves with regard to function wherein they reveal the mode of existence by which associative methods are more or less appropriate. Here we arrive at the specification of actants discussed above. Functionalism understood in Ingold’s terms, as a description of how practices function in a society, is an improper extension, or a collapse. Instead, functionality is domain dependent. To arrive at the form of an association, one must then qualify associative methods in light of the actants.

Ingold’s second critique of “network”, preferring instead “meshwork” introduced in Being Alive (Ingold 2011) and described cogently in Lines (2007) is, in this author’s view, ultimately productive. For Ingold, the central problem inherent in network approaches is the assumption that actors [actants] are isolated nodes divisible from associations and objects. Instead, Ingold implores, being-in-the-world is a process of coextensive intentional engagement. There are not actors that do things; rather there are doing-actors, or to think through Yeats’ helpful line “How do we know the dancer from the dance?” The principle distinction then is how actors are defined. When actors do things with things or other actors, they are an inextricably engaged subject. The relationship then cannot be the numerical accumulation (Latour 2010) of interested actants but must be one of mutual becoming, or synthetically, assembling-toward. There are two components to this view, the first is normative and the second is descriptive.

The view of mutually constitution through labor (or craft, or making, or engaging…) seems inevitably to lead to the distinction found in nearly all phenomenological work; that between modern and pre-modern forms of making, or between skill and technology. The roots of this particular normative distinction in anthropology can be traced back to at least the Marxist concept of alienation, and in many ways, Ingold’s work can be read as a project of articulating alienation (see Ingold’s distinctions in Lines between way-faring and transport). The concept of alienation is principally that when one makes something through somatic engagement, or labor, the product of that work is inalienable as the two participants are co-constitutive. Modern, or capitalist, techno-process, however, attempts to displace this in two ways; the first is when labor is abstracted from the laborers such that the conception of craft is indifferent to who executes the craft (requiring the instrumental reduction of variation). This reductive instrumentality is not loss-less or even costly, rather the instrumental abstraction of processes (or efficiency) is inherently qualitatively destructive. The second aspect of this dynamic involves the purpose assigned to production. Where the craft of a skilled artisan is intended toward the product as an end (use value), the craft of capitalist production is the maximization of exchange value independent of product. We can see here that commodification entails a means/ends reversal. Roughly put, whereas the purpose of capital in the former is for the achievement of produce, the purpose of produce in the latter is for the achievement of capital. The maintenance of inalienable relations between humans and their labor can be understood as a source of value; the extraction of the human from what the human does is destructive of our subject. Violence to the subject is further compounded by the inherent inequalities exacerbated by the capitalist process.

This qualitative dichotomy between modern and pre-modern is found in most anthropology and notably present in the lines connecting Marx, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Ingold, but is exactly what is at stake in Latour’s We have Never Been Modern (2012). Engineering practice presents another special case for teasing out this distinction. Latour insists that the actual forms of modern production are only quantitatively distinct from pre-Modern forms, and that any apparent distinction is merely a result bad self-description on the part of the Moderns. (The necessary implication of this claim, then, is that modes of production cannot be a source of normative distinction because they are not in fact distinct. Thus the normative dimension is largely absent from ANT but reemerges in Latour’s later project through the invocation of Gaia in his Gifford Lectures 2013. More on normativity in STS below.)

For Ingold, the “scientific” description of “human” is misguided (2011: 113) as is the description assumed and unaddressed in ANT. The descriptive component of Ingold’s critique here pertains to the way the subject is accounted as extricable from subject-doing and intention. For many reasons, Ingold’s view is largely correct even in terms of Latourian framework, which is to say, the histories of translation that ultimately account for scientific instrumentation necessary for a thorough account of science in action (Latour 1987) should similarly apply to the human actants. Ingold stresses exactly this with respect to the perception-action systems directly attributable to the evolutionary historically embodied subject (Ingold 2000). In other words, insofar as the human is treated as a black box, to use Latour’s terminology, the human is under theorized as an actor.

Ingold’s argument then is three-fold, the goal directed human must be understood in diachronic terms, the human must be understood as always engaged, and insofar as goal-directed humans are present, normativity is necessarily emergent. (This last point is best addressed below.) From here, the line is a better analogue than a node- where nodes connect or not, lines are always extensive and so any relationship is necessarily diachronically contingent. Connections are evident where lines intersect. Of course, there isn’t any reason to expect that the nodal approach is anything more than a situated communicative expedient rather than an attempt at precise modelling. Latour explains as much in engaging with philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s theory of spheres (2009) – synthesis is possible provided the voids are accounted for. Supposing this is accomplished, and human actors are explicated with similar attention paid to things, how then can we derive an answer to the second question “Why does engineering take the particular form it does?”

Returning to archaeologist Ian Hodder we are encouraged to examine the networks of actors, their trajectories, but also their dimensionality, which is to say, the particular ways things interact given the constraints of their form. Says Hodder,

“We are moving, then, towards the idea that the heterogeneous assemblies or networks of connected things actually involve constraints and dependencies that lock things into particular relationships with each other. Things depend on each other not simply in the sense of relying on the contingent presence of other things but also in the more complex sense of dependency.” (Hodder 2012: 52)

We can loosely model the three approaches in terms of their dimensions below.


Actor Network (1)                       Lines (2)                   Entanglement (3)


Though Hodder’s Entangled seems at first glance to be overly explanatory and inelegant, as noted above, and the model presented here is scandalously primitive, there are some key insights we find consonant with the program outlined by Latour. The first is that a theory of entanglement allows both the consideration of actants as, if not extricable, at least identifiable. While it is no doubt true that actants act, this shouldn’t dissuade the need for specifying what sort of actants act, provided the account is posited as only temporarily impoverished. Second, the paths which the actants follow, Ingold’s lines, are fleshed out through the enablers and constraints of the ecology, but also but the inherent structure of the actants themselves; Hodder’s account (2012, Chapter 4) takes into consideration the biological implications of long term effects of ecological (material) engagement and these effects necessarily manifest themselves sub-human scale actants such as organs, perceptual systems, mosaic genes, bacteria, etc. A cognitive approach to ANT suggests that assemblages cohere more or less to achieve some negentropic ends. Hodder’s account of entanglement is a step toward fitting these diverse systems, cognitive, ecological, social, etc into one baroque framework.

Taking Things Seriously: Rectification of Things

Zi Lu said: “The ruler of Wei is anticipating your assistance in the administration of his state. What will be your top priority?” Confucius said, “There must be a correction of terminology.” Zi Lu said, “Are you serious? Why is this so important?” Confucius said, “You are really simple, aren’t you? A noble man is cautious about jumping to conclusions about that which he does not know. If terminology is not corrected, then what is said cannot be followed. If what is said cannot be followed, then work cannot be accomplished. If work cannot be accomplished, then ritual and music cannot be developed. If ritual and music cannot be developed, then criminal punishments will not be appropriate. If criminal punishments are not appropriate, the people cannot make a move. Therefore, the noble man needs to have his terminology applicable to real language, and his speech must accord with his actions. The speech of the noble man cannot be indefinite.” (Confucius, trans. by Muller 2010)

The specification of actants is necessary for answering the second question regarding form. To a great extent this is sufficiently accomplished in ANT for an ontological account of an association, or network, derived from concrete empirical instances, Latour’s aim. Derivative studies to varying degrees specify particular instantiations of actor networks toward a similar end and so it is no surprise that ANT, being a largely descriptive enterprise, does not appear to make any explanatory or predictive claims as to the form of associative networks. One can fairly say that Latour’s is a closed system. To take this extra step, to provide an account that is in some ways predictive and explanatory is to necessarily disengage from Bloor’s dictums and instead produce data that are simultaneously informative to multiple systems. Such data are interested in the emic justifications of assemblage. Thus the epoché recommended at the onset, and by Bloor, should slowly yield as data accumulates.

The specification of actants is the entry point into this system from outside by reason that specification is necessarily indexical. In other words, insofar as objects and things are specified in relation to their capacities for association, the system is closed and only apparently autopoietic. For Latour, heterogeneous societies are robust to the degree to which they sustain numerical dominance; associations are more or less “costly”. Cost is paid by the enrollment of ever more actants, though surely the costs are not equally distributed and the well from which they are drawn is not infinite.

For any given system studied, and in this case we’ll stick with engineering, Bloor’s dictums ensure symmetrical explanation of relative veracity. An engineering project fails or succeeds in both cases by reasons describable in terms of the social. This state of agnosticism, though, is permissible only to the extent to which we are uninterested in form or the relationship of the association to other associations. Put simply, the project put forth here is not merely the study of associations, but the simultaneous study of associates. To accomplish this is to conciliate across disciplinary boundaries such that sociological knowledge is compatible and commensurate with, in this case, engineering knowledge.

To some extent this is done already with the conciliatory efforts put forth by STS scholars toward the moral and ethical disciplines, however to appreciate the ontological symmetry embedded in ANT, similar extensions should obtain for both immediately adjacent and interacting disciplines. In other words, if we are to extend beyond Latour’s descriptive system, such an extension needs to follow natural routes, i.e. those implicated by the network through the faces of actants. In our hypothetical case of engineering, that network includes tools, humans, and standards, to name a few.

Starting with tools, archaeological methods are especially suited for undertaking the specification of object actants. Ian Hodder, in Entangled (2012) makes the case that the social scientist needs to “take things seriously” and in that archaeology is especially equipped. There is little doubt that this is the case and Hodder provides a compelling argument for the importance of appreciating things independently of human intention when he describes Heidegger’s anthropocentricism (Hodder 2012: 28). For the archaeologist, the existence of things is inextricable from the concrete histories of things. To take things seriously, at least for Hodder, is to reject material and technological determinism and instead focus on the ways things “entangle” with humans and other things through time. This is an important distinction and answers the potential criticism that no one takes things more seriously than the engineers (or chemists, or physicists…) themselves, so for what do we need these interlopers? To be sure, the specification of actants requires engagement with material scientists, though the translations are only intelligible through the mediating role of materially engaged social scientists, or in other words, the archaeologists’ role in tracing the arrival onto the scene of object actants plays a similar role to the chain of custody process in legal and medical domains both because of the documentation of object transformations and for regard of material methods of ownership and possession necessary for the transformation of things into objects (Hodder 2012: 23).

In contrast to the unique contributions of engineering sciences, comprehension of the articulation of this particular system (engineering-association) requires diachronic material attention of human/thing co-development, which is to say that understanding an object requires how an object came to be. While the ANT perspective insists that the relevant information for social action is present, no more no less, we need still more information to describe why it is that the present is the form it is.

Cognitive archaeologists are uniquely equipped for providing the types of insights needed for informing historical and ongoing human/object co-development. Lambros Malafouris and Colin Renfrew’s material engagement theory (Renfrew 2004, Malafouris 2004, Malafouris and Renfrew 2010, Malafouris 2013) offers a compelling framework for understanding the ways humans and things are mutually constitutive in reference to cognition, a critical aspect of goal directed optimization such as foundational in engineering. Essentially material engagement refers to the theoretical claim that the study of the mind and the science of material culture are not distinct domains. The call to take material sciences seriously from archaeologists is in many ways a cogent critique of the heavily linguistic hermeneutic approach to comprehending tool use found in Heidegger and against the symbolic reliant cognitivism exemplified in early models of intelligence both occluding the role of material interaction in formulating cognition as a materially contingent interactive system. Carl Knappett (2004) similarly draws our intention toward the insight developed from James Gibson’s study of visual perception (2013 orig. 1979) that cognition is present as an interactive system.

Contributions from cognitive archaeology are diverse and can be informative from a number of angles. Iain Morley and Colin Renfrew (2010) posit that seemingly abstract concepts such as measurement are derived by material engagement with actual things; this engagement necessarily precedes the generation of this concept of quality. The generative nature of material engagement is especially interesting in the field of engineering with regard to the role of material sciences, experimentation, prototyping, and model building. The potential for the application of material engagement theory to such seemingly abstract symbolic engineering exercises like code development and computer sciences is promising in that the material properties of symbolic systems are cognitively generative (Goody 1977, Deetz 2010, Malafouris 2013, Wengrow 2013). Toward this, Malafouris explains a theory of enactive sign by which numeracy, for example, is born out of material engagement (Malafouris 2013: 106-116, but see Chrisomalis 2010). In any case, the roll of embodiment, materiality, and physical engagement with mereologically significant phenomena (phonemes, graphemes, fingers or clay) should figure in an understanding of goal directed actants insofar as cognition represents an engine of negentropy, as in the case of Neolithic architecture scaffolding memory through manifesting culturally salient information (Watkins 2004). The extended mind hypothesis developed by Chalmers and Clark (1998) and advanced by both Malafouris (2013) and Hodder (2013) pushes this concept toward synchronic interaction. Not only has interaction contributed to the evolutionary and ontogenetic development of the human mind, interaction with things is constitutive of mind. The familiar example is Bateson’s blind man and walking stick. From this vantage we are invited to take a different approach to Ingold’s co-developed lines, one that specifies the cognitive subject (mind) as the relation.

Actants must be conceived of as perpetually coming from somewhere as they carry with them the residual circumstances of their development through their very methods of associating. This is true for both humans and objects (if we are forced to retain the already problematic dichotomy). While material engagement specifies the form of humans via interaction, so too does it specify the forms of objects themselves.

While cognitive archaeology specifies the historically constituted subject as materially engaged actant, what of the assemblages themselves, those extra-human-scale black boxes such as institutions, work groups, associations, and companies? Historical archaeology is especially relevant in providing information for tracing the contributions of, for example, Bowker and Star’s invisible actants to institutional assembly. Recall earlier that the principle of irreduction allows that sub-human scale actants (perceptual systems, organs, bacteria…) are symmetrically regarded in accounts of association. So too should extra-human actants. Here, though, especially in the case of engineering, the tracing of translations and interactions involves the analysis of documentation. While the ANT approach is well-equipped to handle documentation in terms of synchronic interaction, it is less so adept at diachronically informed inferences necessary for indexing a given system’s prior state for which no human actants are present for observation. Timo Ylimaunu’s account (2013) of the role of the architectural structure of Orthodox churches in Northern Finland in the 17th and 18th century is a model example of the ways in which archaeological knowledge of the causal role of materials, in this case the Panopticon-like floor plan of the round church, is triangulated against records (church attendance) to provide a robust inference with regard to the teleological purpose of a given association.

Normativity in STS

If we are following now that associations are best understood as teleological meshworks of entangled Act-ants, or more plainly, that domain specific societies (like engineering) are goal directed and historically/causally situated; then we need to identify the process of assembly (what ANT does) but also the process of motion. To do this is to consider that motile systems operate along vectors. Identifying these vectors and specifying their form is critical, then, to describing how it is that networks change. Understanding change, here, is to simultaneously understand preference, or what ought to be, as distinct from what is. The analysis of purpose driven behavior is a credible way to derive revealed extra-associative normativity, the observation of which is generally excluded from ANT.

The agnosticism inherent in ANT is especially problematic for STS scholars invested in the normative dimensions of science, this dimension being a key starting point for the discipline as a whole. Historically a sizable portion of STS scholarship is deliberately intended toward critique (Sismondo 2011). Critique in STS, though, should not be confused with critique of science and technology, but as critical engagement with scientific and technological practices in order to articulate the normative assumptions going into, and product coming out of, these practices (Winner 2010, Collins and Pinch 2014). In other words, the critique of Science and Technology is primarily, but not only, critical of the over idealized descriptions of these practices eliding the constitution of the practices themselves (Bijker 2012). This is not necessarily the case, however, critique can take multiple forms; at the simplest level, technologies can be evaluated according to how they affect society as per some normative guideline (Winner 2010). In reverse, critique can be leveled at the particular norms specifying the goals and techniques of science (Marks 2009). McKinnon’s account of Neo-Liberal Genetics, for example, does both (McKinnon 2005). A more integrated approach, and to this author more sophisticated, would specify how norms are created and enacted through scientific practice (see MacKenzie 2004). An object oriented approach may look both at the process of scientific or technological practice and at the process of normative socialization of scientific-technological produce beyond the lab (for example Dumit 2004, Verbeek 2011, Stolow 2012).

In all, it appears that what ANT and normative STS agree on is that science, technology, and things more broadly are not neutral; the disagreement appears to be topical. Where STS scholarship does indeed attempt to engage with defining what I am calling here form, the strategy is peculiar in that the extensions made- to various forms of ethical philosophy- are not directly justifiable given the locus of inquiry. Joseph Dumit’s examination of personhood is one such instance where the product of a particular medical practice, namely PET scans, is formative with regard to what assumptions constitute our consideration of the human subject. This, Dumit notes, is problematic insofar as the scans are read by the unscientifically educated public, (for example in the courtroom) as indicative of an objective essentialist ontology that misrepresents the statistical contingencies inherent in scientific visualization practices. Of course Dumit’s concern is the misrepresentation of a personhood that is (presumably) properly constructed subjectively by those individuals to whom the scans reference (if only we’d all abide). Though it’s difficult to argue in such an agreeable case, one can see that Dumit posits better and worse processes of personhood independent of the diverse conditions under which it is constructed by de facto privileging the emancipation of the scientific individual. Abstractly, we find this problem in historical archaeology as well, as notes Symonds (Symonds and Oliver 2013: 1-14), where interpretations are either advanced or elided depending upon the assumptions and predilections of the interpreter. Similarly, where historical cognitive archaeology tends to consider the cognitive in terms of meaning, affect, memory, and experience (see for example Oliver 2013: 98-116, Gadsby 2013: 43-56) (without a doubt crucial aspects of cognition) it seems less so interested in the integrated aspects of cognition pertinent to negentropic action such as motivation, decision making, and computational processing, to say nothing of the perception-action systems responsible for skilled and embodied practices as addressed in the activity theoretical ethnographic approaches (Hutchins 1995, but see Malafouris and Renfrew). This focus of historical archaeology, following Deetz (2010) is no doubt a product of the types of information available for the methods used, but may also be indicative of the biases highlighted by Symonds. There is no reason a priori to exclude the information processing aspects of cognition form the analytical gaze of historical archaeologists interested in documentation; in fact, in some ways anthropologist Goody offers just such an approach, as does Ingold, their insights into writing being suitably adaptable to a richer and deeper analysis through the material focused lens of archaeologists. In any case, to avoid the types of biases identified by Symonds, and occasionally imported in normative STS, the aims and processes of engineering must in some way be constitutive of the teleological critique of engineering, or a critique from ends. The normative system must in some way be interactive.

One such way to address this is to consider actor networks, or associations, as assembled in defiance of entropy. The relative robustness of a given association is the extent to which it assembles coherently and intelligibly, or in other words, the extent to which it exports entropy while simultaneously accumulating, or recruiting, allies. The health of a system is a function of its numerical dominance and degree of entropy where entropy is a measure of uncertainty with regard to a disjunction between associative methods and the purpose of association present in costly interface between actants. A morbid system is then one whose methods are at cross purpose to the intention of the system (the classic public choice disincentive failure mode), where a healthy system is one wherein actant-actant interfaces are transparent.

Methodological Implications

This adapted ANT approach, which attempts to incorporate archaeological expertise for the diachronic rectification of things, would be put toward charting a multi-dimensional network. In the case of an engineering association, the network would be specified first according to the actants presently functioning as mediators. Those actants would be represented in two ways, the first as ethnographically depicted richly concrete tokens of engineering action. They would be describable by particular histories, actions, and behavior. A second model intersects the first and is comprised of a scalar analysis of actants in terms of their constituting actants. This requires an analysis of the historical composition evident in the present, whether in the form of material-engagement development effects on the affordances of scientific instrumentation; biological markers of niche construction specifying cognitive propensities and means of inference; or historically situated language and modes of communication embedded in documentation, standards, and classifications in present circulation.

A detailed look at the evident presence of the development, the historical immanence, of models, prototypes, instruments, tools, standards, classifications, pedagogy, documentation, meetings, projects, gates, deadlines, timing, resources, criteria, files, agenda, assignments, deliverables, validation, feasibility, and many other things will provide an empirical basis for the comprehension of a situated actor network- a system in time.

To accomplish this, an appropriate field site would be identified for participant observation. Per Ingold (2013: 8-10), participation should necessarily include the process of making alongside the respondents. In the case of engineering, this may include the production of code, documentation, CAD, etc. Making affords entry into the constitutive structuring of actants at various levels. Attention to sensory-perceptual inputs and cognitive processing as well as material outputs should be recorded in parallel to human scale behavior and action. Documentation would be analyzed per methods developed in historical archaeology to trace not only how they are actors-at-present, but how they can to exist as they are in order to make inferences regarding the prior forms of the assemblage. Following the archaeological model, objects should be disassembled into component parts and their form, method of manufacture, assembly, supplier network, cost requirements, method of acquisition, and history should be examined to explicate the trajectory of networks wherein it exists. Together this collection of methods intends to articulate the form of engineering in terms of what it is and how it moves/changes.


The way forward for approaching the diachronic study of actor networks could include the incorporation of historical and cognitive archaeological methods for the purpose of specifying the form of actants in terms of their own particular methods for social assembly. While STS in general offers a broad framework for the analysis of associations, such as science or engineering, ANT more specifically starts from a position that the association should be understood in its own terms, eschewing the importation of alien normativity and conflation of function. This includes the necessary insight that humans and objects are ontologically symmetrical with regard to association. The importance for this insight is two-fold. In the first case it avoids the confusion that would otherwise follow from adopting the insights of material engagement theorists and extended cognition theorists, insights we’d be wise to not jettison just to maintain anthropocentricism. Second, the leveling of actors facilitates the conceptualization of relative efficacy as a function of numerical accumulation. Where associations coalesce into more powerful alliances, the degree to which these alliances are more or less costly is the degree to which they are intelligent in reference to some goal. Intelligent associations export entropy, whereas unintelligent ones import it. The conceiving of associations, or alliances, along these lines helps to situate them diachronically and normatively- by where they are headed and their degree of morbidity. Finally, an anthropological study of a domain, such as engineering, in terms of the internal methods of association as well as in reference to the historically contingent co-development of interactive forms could potentially contribute to the philosophy of technology an empirically grounded basis for native normativity. This possibility for pluriversal meta-ethics could potentially challenge on empirical grounds the implied mono-ethics of classical historical materialism as well as the universal democratic-diplomacy ethics of Latour’s Gaia project. Additionally it potentially presents a challenge to the coherence theory of truth implicated in perspectivism. Whether or not this is possible, it is enough to say now that the view of associations- afforded by an ANT framework that can empirically index a trajectory via archaeological methods- as ontologically flat but projected systems, permits a new ground for philosophical epoché from which we can re-evaluate the prospect of critique in STS.

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