The right answer begins with the right question
March 6, 2009
Socially fragmented ethical individuals and powerful, self-interested networks
April 20, 2009
Show all

This is the first Blog in the “Theory Café” corner of the Village-Connections Village Square.

The question I wish to discuss is how we can think effectively about local development that meets the needs of villagers in their local environments. These needs encompass physical factors such as air, food, water and shelter, as well as social or spiritual factors, such as autonomy and authenticity.

Preamble: I started this Blog thinking I would focus on Ulrich Beck and his work on the Theory of Reflexive Modernization because Beck has since the 1980s drawn attention to the unstable and ‘risky’ ecological and economic environment. I have been concerned that to work effectively, local development needs to be contextualised in the wider environment in which it is carried out. But then I read a series of articles on Reflexive Modernization in Theory, Culture & Society 2003 Vol 20 (2) including a critique of Beck’s approach by Bruno Latour. I now find myself incorporating both into this Blog. However, by following Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT) approach, I’m going into territory where I don’t have much background. So please, if you see ways to help, add your contribution to the discussion. There is a need for effective theory to help village development. Villagers everywhere will appreciate it.

The context for this locally-based development is the globally interdependent world. In this world, as German social theorists Ulrich Beck and Natan Sznaider strikingly point out, especially given globalization, “every act of production and consumption and every act of everyday life links actors to millions of unseen others” (in British Journal of Sociology, 2010).

Beck is a German sociologist who became widely known in Europe for his theorisation of the global risk society and his related theory of a “second modernity.” His starting point is that modern production and consumption have created pervasive, unintended consequences, notably risks. These consequences were not anticipated in the original, classical modernization theory, and cannot be comprehended or dealt with in the context of the nation state, around which this theory was formulated.

The basic deficiency of the initial modernization theory was that while it theorized society, it was theoretically and methodologically and practically blind to the natural environment on which society depended.  There was simply an expectation that society had available to it a free and limitless supply of natural resources that it could keep on processing for an endlessly growing market.

The framework of the first modernity had a considerable clarity and order about it. It identified society with the nation state, which in turn is contained in a national territory that has institutions that function in an integrated way within it. For example, the welfare state provided or regulated education, law and employment practices.

This first modernity was based on individualisation, but individuals were in turn moulded by social institutions, in particular, the nuclear family, gender roles and class structure. In this modern structure, individuals (especially the mainly male breadwinner) were supported by and had the support of economic security, for instance, participation in the national economy, gainful employment, and life-long careers.

There was also clarity about who were members of society and who were deemed to be outsiders, what was accredited knowledge and belief and what was not, and there was a hierarchy between those who were accredited experts and those who were lay participants.

Beck and Szaider argue that now the technical revolution and global market expansion has thrown these certainties into flux and brought into being a second, globally-shaped phase of modernity. They see the second modernity as representing a new kind of society, nature, labour, everyday life and state. They say, “There is simply no way of turning the clock back to a world of sovereign nation-states and national societies …Capital tears down all national boundaries and jumbles together the ‘native’ with the ‘foreign’ (British Journal of Sociology, 2006, p. 10). However, they stress, this is to see not the end of the nation state, but rather its transformation.  They argue that much current sociological methodology is still based too narrowly on the nation state and nationalism, and needs to take much more account of the wider global environment.

In practical terms, as Beck has noted, there is a need to help provide a picture “of this new world that people and institutions can use to orient themselves” (Theory, Culture & Society 20-2:3). However, he does not trace out how this can be done in the everyday life in which these people and institutions function and have to make their reflexive adjustments.

The French theorist, Bruno Latour, picks up on this gap. While agreeing with Beck’s general concerns, in particular the consequences for the environment, he is critical of Beck’s methodological perspective. He sees Beck as “placing himself firmly in the God’s-eye privileged position … roaming freely through the ‘whole’ of society without showing the least interest in the practical and local conditions making this ‘whole’ visible.” (reference in Theory, Culture & Society 20-2:40)

Latour has developed what he calls an “actor network theory” (ANT). This approach seeks to comprehend, track and depict what is happening everywhere and anywhere by following interconnected networks of people and things across space and time. He does not accept a clear distinction between people as actors and things as being acted on by them. For instance, as is now increasingly apparent in our ecologically attuned age – or Beck’s ‘risk society –  “things,” such as nature, are not simply available to be manipulated by humans for their own ends, but are also very much acting on humans.

So the actual “actors” in his system he depicts as “actants” are “hybrids” or “assemblages” of humans and non-humans, no longer, as has been hitherto popularly and scientifically understood, distinct human subjects and distinct physical objects. He sees permutations of these actants as being constantly constituted, reworked and reconstituted in networks, in complex and endless chains of interaction. A major aim of the ANT approach is to make visible and recognize fully as intrinsic to what is happening, much that is often missed and not recorded in everyday or social scientific discourses.

Latour’s ANT approach draws on the account of everyday interaction that Harold Garfinkel elaborates in his ethnomethodology. In this approach, knowledge and reflexivity about it starts not at the level of wider society or social theory, but with the world as it is intersubjectively generated, defined, shared and sustained by community members in the course of their everyday lives. The social world is by its very nature disorderly, and social order is continuously constructed and reconstructed in the minds of social actors in the course of their interactions in practical situations by selecting facts that seem to fit a pattern, and then by using this pattern as a framework, with which they interpret new facts as they arise. This on-going use and development of patterns to classify knowledge constitutes an everyday reflexivity of knowledge.

To get to a more adequately framed theoretical account of effective local development, I see it as helpful to blend Beck’s macro approach which uses and adapts relatively familiar terms drawn from everyday use to create “a larger picture from which to orient oneself” – with the much more finely grained and more technically-expressed approach of Latour who draws on Garfinkel.

This website is centrally about relating social science methodology to the recognition and development of practical, everyday village life in its various settings and forms. I see it as essential to make the local villagers’ situated, everyday knowledge centrally important, especially including the details not normally noticed, the connections and networks, the natural environment, technologies, levels of care and hospitality.

However, I think that in order for the villagers to sustain their village life with its own discursivity in an age of globalization and major, at times disruptive environmental and economic transitions, it can become relevant and useful to depict what may be happening in the village in terms of a methodology which is able to recognise wider frameworks and help to make these available as repertoire for villagers.

This blending of approaches of course raises practical questions, for instance of protocol about how to interface and translate between these practical and academic discourses in ways that recognize the integrity and contribution of each.

This integration of approaches also brings into view issues of transdisciplinarity between the disciplines of academia, if or as, they come together to relate in new ways to everyday village life.

In the next Blog I shall begin to look at theory which incorporates particulars of everyday experience into some wider concepts and frameworks in ways which go beyond description, towards the opening up of possibilities for villagers to meet needs in some new and effective ways.

In the meantime, any thoughts, any help, or any critiques – Blogs or Comments –  are most welcome. I’d also be interested in feedback about the readability or followability of this Blog.  I appreciate some of the material might be on the heavy side for some readers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



  1. Sarah says:

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Klaus says:

    Bruno Latour and Peter Sloterdijk at Harvard GSD (via Klaustoon):

  3. Hong says:

    As a student researcher in this area, I was amazed to find the value of the blog: a high standard, insightful, stimulating and daily-life friendly interpretation of theories. I quite enjoyed reading it.