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11 February 2010

Intermediaries and Mediators

In Reassembling the Social, Bruno Latour introduces an interesting dichotomy - between what he calls intermediaries and mediators.
Intermediaries - Objects that simply replicate their input. They obey basic laws of cause and effect where the effect can easily be predicted by the cause.

Mediators - Objects that transform their input or alter it in some way. The effect cannot easily be predicted by the cause. They are complex.
This is interesting to me. It basically parallels what a lot of researchers in complexity theory and systems theory have been finding - that even a seemingly simple function can produce very complex results, usually as a result of some sort of feedback. Mediators are like the dog in Bateson's example - unlike a ball, when you kick the dog you can't necessarily determine its trajectory from the force and direction of the kick. The dog may turn around and bite you, or it may run off to cower in a corner.

What's interesting in Latour, I think, is the dichotomy. There are two classes of objects, one which simply replicates the input and one which transforms it. A system composed entirely of intermediaries would not be very interesting; it wouldn't do anything unique, it wouldn't generate anything new and eventually it would run out of steam and collapse. In order for self-organization, pattern and other interesting processes to occur there must be some mediator(s) involved. Furthermore, an object can act in one case as an intermediary and in another as a mediator. For example, humans are typically mediators - unpredictable - but stick one in a large complex bureaucracy and they often become mere intermediaries - performing repetitive tasks with little or no thought, and simply doing what their told until they punch the clock. That person can become an intermediary if s/he notices an injustice in the bureaucratic system and, for example, does small things to gum up the works (interestingly, humans may be unique among animals in their ability to go back and forth between the two roles).

What Latour wants, as far as I can tell (and I haven't finished the book yet), is for scientists - especially social scientists - to treat all objects to the greatest extent possible as mediators. In some cases, this would mean erring on the side of interpreting something as a mediator when its role is ambiguous. That includes both the researcher and the product of the research. Most scientists think of their work as consisting of three discrete objects - the subject of the research, the researcher(s) themselves, and the text where the results are written up. These are taken as being merely intermediaries - not changing or influencing one another. For positivists, the subject is the most important, for critical scholars, the text takes center stage.

For Latour, however, all three are important because they are all mediators interacting in a complex relationship. The world doesn't exist "out there" for us to study "objectively" without interacting or influencing it, and it doesn't stop moving once the text has been written. Researchers must begin to see their work, not as discrete steps that have little relation to one another but as a continuing process of unfolding.

The relationship between the research and the object of study is complex and dynamic - producing novelty and unpredictable behavior. The same is true of the relationship between the text and the researcher, and between the text and the object, and between all of them and the rest of the world. The text collapses numerous historical threads - some of which the researcher isn't even aware of - into a singular event, and it generates numerous new threads, pathways for new possibilities to emerge.

This new way of seeing our research suggests a whole new ethic, where we must represent the process and all of the participants equally as mediators. We have to ask ourselves what our research does, what new threads might it generate, and can we live with those consequences. Research becomes a much more ethical issue as well as a far more interesting practice.


btmc said...

I think this dichotomy of Latour could be taken as a teaching tool.
What did I just teach you?
That e equals mc2
you're being an intermediary, come on now, be a mediator!
okay so if I could throw this ball at the speed of light...

I know that one of the best ways to show someone that you are actively listening would be to act more as a mediator. not simply repeat what they say "ahuh, yep, thunderbirds, yup" but internalize and reformat. I think the danger of becoming an intermediary is real and present and probably worse than death. But it is efficient, if, you know, we all want to drive cars and so on...

One thing interesting I find at my current job, slicing meat in a deli, is that folks tend to assume that when they say "not too thick, and not too thin" they expect me to give them the exact slice that they have pictured in their head. Often they say "perfect!" which leads me to believe that they either don't really have a picture of what they want in their head, or they're avoiding the hassle of getting me to change it, or they're capable of subtle telepathic communication and these words "not too thick, not too thin" are somehow triggering this telepathy in a totally subconscious section of my brain.
Anyway it seems I am capable of succeeding in this intermediary role about 50% of the time. Meaning, they tell the magic words and I spit out the slice they want. Others, who have worked their longer, have a higher percentage.
more study must needs follow.

Jeremy Trombley said...

Interesting thoughts, Brendan. As far as I know, no one has applied Latour's work to pedagogy, but it seems like a natural extension.

You're right too, that we need to act as intermediaries a lot of times in our world. Mindlessness is definitely useful when driving a car. But then Latour would point out that we also need to recognize the agency of the things around us too. In some sense, the care is MAKING us drive a certain way, as are the streets, the signs, etc. Your meat cutter or the meat itself might be exerting an influence on you that you don't recognize.

The other thing is that it's not clear what kind of behavior is mediator versus intermediary behavior. Inattention to teachers and friends, cutting just the right slice of meat (or the wrong slice) - these might turn out to be mediator behavior if they transform the situation in some way.

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