Latour’s humbling grumblings

When we finished our last group discussion on Latour’s Reassembling the Social a couple weeks ago, I was, admittedly, happy to move on. It has come as somewhat of surprise, then, to find that Actor Network Theory is apparently still percolating through my mental interstitia. Recently, while crafting the research proposal for my MPH degree-project, I have found myself reflecting on the relatively amoral ontology of ANT: It may yet hold some ethical utility for me in the politically sterilized venue of institutional public health research.

The broader subject of my MPH research, the Duwamish River Superfund Cleanup, is itself ethically and politically charged. However, in working for the past year as part of a team conducting a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) regarding the Cleanup, I have found the effort to be surprisingly perfunctory and minimally critically engaged. Now, as the process of conducting that assessment and producing the HIA report winds down, my role is shifting toward an impending evaluation of the HIA process and its impact (the subject area for my MPH project). Of interest in relation to ANT, and seemingly unavoidably political, my evaluation will investigate the effects of the HIA pertaining to a variety of interrelated groups: some likely to have their lives directly affected by decisions regarding the Cleanup; some making and implementing those decisions; and some more tangentially connected.

To characterize the effects of the HIA, I’ll conduct qualitative analysis of input gathered from focus groups with stakeholders and interviews with decision makers regarding the Cleanup. It is in considering the overall scope and structure of those focus groups and interviews that I have found the precepts of ANT goading me. To pre-delineate my subjects of study, estimating the magnitude of time and resources to be applied to the investigation (as required by our parochial IRB), presumes at least a modicum of foreknowledge regarding what truly matters- and what does not- in the Duwamish situation. In ANT terms, such prejudgment is problematic, for reasons that may be evident.

Despite its transcendent nomenclature, the Duwamish Superfund Cleanup attends to a very pedestrian and very local situation. The implications of the project will largely play out among limited actors and (non-human) actants that could well remain within 50 miles of the waterway for most of their existence. Yet, in this distinctly local scenario, there are also undeniably palpable effects of forces that are oh-so-comfortably attributed to global forms: power, wealth, capital, State… the usual suspects/structural boogeymen of critical sociology. And getting at those forces at play locally, without summarily invoking such global powers, would call into play some ANT-esque emergent dendritic research not so readily encapsulated for the IRB.

As an example of the rub: clearly, the wellbeing of the Native American tribes with treaty-rights to subsistence fish in the Duwamish should be of serious concern in framing the Cleanup action for the waterway. And if the EPA’s unilateral decision to mandate cleaning the Duwamish to some nth-degree of cleanliness would leave the waterway’s fish polluted in perpetuity, then “power relations” could justifiably be said to significantly affect the wellbeing of those tribes. But in even conceiving of research that may point toward such allegorical determinants of wellbeing, I hear Latour clucking, his glib admonishment: “No. Don’t jump.” And I wonder: whom do I help by invoking higher-plane forces, in this case power relations, to discuss a local situation? The mythology regarding such forces is strengthened by my testimony, but personal-level accountability and the potential for the tribes or the EPA to address the situation-at-hand is actually weakened by such projection. Whereas, if I refuse to jump, and instead doggedly trace the particular relations between the actors and actants at hand, pragmatic interventions are more conceivable.

In the field of institutional public health, visible principal researchers still strive for perceived impartially and objectivity in addressing their subjects of study. Overt political activism is anathema. The positivist machine may condone sterilized analysis that quantifies the adverse health effects of structural-political determinants, even though such analysis cannot readily suggest action to address the problems. Rather, problems are neatly captured for posterity, journaled away in the archives.

Within this setting, it seems that ANT may hold some promise as a means of iteratively addressing political problems without ever crying wolf. ANT may indeed be an amoral approach to critical analysis, but in its empiricism, might it prove a useful first step for defensibly setting the stage for moral action? Can evaluation of the Duwamish HIA unassumingly trace relations between local actors/actants in the Duwamish situation in a way that, sans dogmatism or mythology, deploys the positions and roles of those at play in a way that invites good in their next moves?