Article Comments: “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation”

Callon, M. 1986. “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation” in J. Law, Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge? London, Routledge, 1986, pp. 196-223

One of the most important articles of 20th-century social science, and an integral piece by which to understand the influence of French, post-modern intellectualism on sociology and anthropology.

Through a case study of scientists and members of a scallop fishing community in St. Brieuc Bay, France, Callon seeks to outline an improvement to what had become known in the mid-80’s as the sociology of translation (i.e. the facilitation of structures of power through the constitution of scientific knowledge) (1986: 1). According to Callon, his article retraces how “a social group was formed (the fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay) through the privileges that this group was able to institute and preserve” through the production and certification of scientific knowledge (1986: 6).

Callon’s article represented a significant development in the way of post-modernist theory, and yet we can make serious distinctions between the methodological considerations he espoused and those which now pervade in some academic realms regarding the dynamics of power, discourse, partiality, and privilege.

From a methodological perspective, Callon’s outline of a sociology of translation emphasizes three methodological principles which constitute ‘actor-network theory’ (though not under that name) as a methodological approach: 1) “agnosticism of the observer” (1986: 3, 17); 2) “generalized symmetry” (1986: 4, 17), and; “free association” (1986: 4, 17-18).

  • Agnosticism of the observer, refers to the privileging of certain points of view. It is important to recognize that Callon’s qualms with the sociologists is with respect to their taking the social world as a given. In Callon’s view, the privilege and power that is held is through the absence of questioning its validity – it privileges a way of interpreting how actors in the process are defined, rather than letting them reveal in their own ways how they see themselves in any given process or event. It’s also important to note that this is in no way the same as the currently politicized notions of privilege often used in racial discourse.
  • Generalized symmetry, refers to the notion of, as Callon puts it, not only “explaining conflicting viewpoints and arguments in a scientific or technological controversy in the same terms”, but to do so with a single repertoire. We can see this in Callon’s own work, for example, by the way he speaks about the scallops as if they too were people either joining or avoiding the fishermen who seek to catch them.
  • Free association, refers to the abandoning of all “a priori distinctions between natural and social events”, and he calls this conflict of interest something that should be the result of an analysis rather than the point of departure. The point of this idea is to emphasize the lack of clear definition between social and scientific taxonomies of actors.

With these principles in mind, Callon’s method “follows an actor” through its connections which permeate both nature and society, and which facilitates Callon’s inclusion of the scallops themselves as constituents of the “social group”. Callon emphasizes four significant and overlapping moments of translation (1986: 6): “problematization” (1986: 6); “interessement” (1986: 8); “enrolment” (1986: 10), and; “mobilization/representation” (1986: 12-13). Additionally, Callon remarks upon the nature of “controversy”, that haunts representation (1986: 15). These sites of controversy become the locus for a renegotiation of actors’ social roles (1986: 16).

  • Problematization, as a form of connection, refers to a mode of making oneself, or something, an “obligatory point of passage” (1986: 7). Like the hammer in the proverb “to a man with a hammer, every problem becomes a nail”, problematization is a process of identifying as some integral element in the constitution of a network of relationships.
  • Interessement, is the process by which actors enlisted by the problematization test their identities and their connections to one another. A kind of liminality, as Callon puts it, an actor is in a position to either “submit to being integrated into the initial plan, or inversely, refuse the transaction by defining its identity, its goals, projects, orientations, motivations, or interests in another manner” (1986: 8).
  • Callon spends a great deal of time explaining this, but simply, enrolement is the “definition and distribution of roles” by whatever means (force, persuasion, seduction, etc.). In Callon’s work it takes the form of the scallops which anchor themselves, the fishermen are persuaded that the collectors could help restock the Bay, the colleagues that are seduced into believing in the anchorage, “all as a result of multilateral negotiations during which the identity of the actors is determined and tested” (1986: 12).
  • Representation, refers to the fact that a select group actors will speak on behalf of others who do not. Representation is always an issue, and yet both necessary and unavoidable (1986: 13-15).
  • Controversy, is “all the manifestations by which the representativity of the spokesman is questioned, discussed, negotiated, rejected, etc.” (1986: 15). At the end of Callon’s article, we know that the efforts of the fishermen and all those involved in St. Brieuc Bay have failed: the fisherman and researchers place their nets but the scallop collectors remain empty. Whether deemed an accident or not, the device of interessement fails, and the scallop larvae are enlisted among another network of actors.

Callon’s perspective emphasizes the legitimacy and constructive contribution of the observed as agents who recognize their own reality: the observer does not pigeon-hole the observed into a structure already fixed by assumptions about the nature of social institutions or organizational configurations to explain why certain actors do what they do. Callon simply translates what actors are doing into a “neutral” framework of observation. It is an attempt to “horizontalize” a structure of power (e.g. fishermen’s role is dependent on scallops’ enrolment, and arguably vice versa). Yet, despite the goal of horizontalizing power, it attempts to explain the process by which few actors within a network can speak for other actors through the process of translation (1986: 19), arguably becoming one such agent himself in his own explanation of processes.

How can we understand the role of the non-human in influencing human organization? There is something beyond this which is valuable for considerations of technology, and design: we might ask, how is the designer, or even the designed object, the proverbial hammer by which every user finds in his/her environment a nail? What of “Design” as a discipline, or professional institution? How does a brand, or advertisement do the same thing – how do they function as tools of interessement, and eventual enrolement?

It is also important to recognize that, despite all efforts to incorporate the lens of a post-modern philosophy into social science, there can never be a horizontalization of power, no actors will ever be without representation, or translation.

In comparison to some other contemporary literature, Callon is concerned with “entanglements”, looking to enrich descriptions and complicate them. Actor-Network Theory is concerned with shared goals: that which interests and enrolls. The controversy is a political moment because of the way a given event is talked about in political language. Though similar to other authors (like Tim Ingold, or Donna Haraway), Callon’s effort is distinctly one which brings science back into the realm of political, by bringing things into the same realm of matter.


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