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Translating Callon (1984)

This short text was written as part of the follow-up to a discussion from my master course, “Boundaries of Psychology,” which includes classic and interdisciplinary readings related to boundaries, boundary-work, boundary objects, incommensurability, and other similar concepts. The text is a lightly edited excerpt from an email to my students who were presenting that week, Valeria and Niall, about Michel Callon’s essay that later become one of the founding statements of Actor-Network Theory.

Callon, M. (1984). Some elements of a sociology of translation: Domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay. The Sociological Review, 32(S1), 196-233.

One of the ways of evaluating the truthfulness of a translation, even if you don’t understand it, is to look at the results. If it achieved the intended goal, then it was successful. The system that produced that success can also be called true relative to that goal.

Of course, this requires that you adopt a pragmatic theory of truth. But I think that’s the sort of thing that a sociologist like Callon would be attracted to: “I don’t care what the individuals involved actually think, so long as we can model their actions relative to each other in such a way that we can interpret and understand our observations.” (Or so I imagine him saying.)

This article takes that to the extreme. By adopting methodological symmetry, every “actor” involved in producing the outcome is treated equally. They are therefore said to have “interests,” even though we don’t know (and Callon doesn’t care) if scallops really do.

With these so-called interests in hand, you can align the different actors to produce outcomes that evaluate as true pragmatically (viz. “do we have scallops we can harvest?”). So you can be said to have constructed a translation process that produces pragmatic truths—there are scallops—even when you don’t understand what it’s really doing.

To put it another way: you’ve built a “Chinese Room” (following Searle, 1980). It doesn’t understand, and it doesn’t feel. But it translates inputs into outputs. Correctly.

This is weird for psychologists. We care about what’s happening on the inside. But for sociologists, what’s inside is not what matters. What matters is how the different groups interact to produce the observed outcomes. That, then, is the meaning of translation we’re dealing with here: the interests are accommodated, not the contents of the minds of those involved. 

Scallops aren’t “convinced” in the way that a person would be if you were negotiating with them. Instead, they are “induced” to act. And so too can the fishermen be: they may not agree, but their actions can be predicted and controlled if they subscribe to the problematization and continue to stay enrolled. (Doesn’t this view of “domestication” sound a bit like a kind of Behaviorism?)

In short: Callon provides us a way of identifying boundaries. Simply put, there are different interests. And he also gives us a way to overcome the barriers that those boundaries represent: align the interests. This then informs his four “moments” of translation: problematisation, interessement (think “en-interest-ment”), enrolment, and mobilisation.

Categories: Archived Boundaries of Psychology Teaching

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J. T. Burman

JEREMY TREVELYAN BURMAN, PhD, is tenured Senior Assistant Professor (UD1 with indefinite contract) of Theory and History of Psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The primary focus of his research is Jean Piaget, but he is also interested more generally in the formalization and movement of scientific meaning—over time, across disciplines, between languages, and internationally. To pursue these interests, he uses methods borrowed from the history and philosophy of science (esp. archival study) and the digital humanities (esp. network analysis).

Selected recent major works
Burman, J. T. (in press). The genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget. In W. Pickren (Ed.), The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of the History of Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Burman, J. T. (2020). On Kuhn’s case, and Piaget’s: A critical two-sited hauntology (or, on impact without reference). History of the Human Sciences, 33(3-4), 129-159. doi:10.1177/0952695120911576

Burman, J. T. (2019). Development. In R. J. Sternberg & W. Pickren, eds, The Cambridge Handbook of the Intellectual History of Psychology (pp. 287-317). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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