„We’re all actors in this I suppose.“ Gill Scott Heron
With regard to scientific findings two very different sociological approaches are imaginable: either one could define nature as foreign to the human condition to such an extent that it is possible for modern man to discover objective truths (Durkheim & Mauss 1903) or one regards nature as part of the social processes of life to such an extent, that truths are rather a sort of truce between the scientific researcher and the object of his research in which they “agree” on what has actually been discovered (Latour & Woolgar 1986):
Both points of view are of course extremes but they help to explain what this text is about: it tries to find a way between “scientific facts” and “social construction” of electromagnetic waves and pesticides. I do not doubt the existence of such waves and would never dare to proclaim that pesticides are a mere invention of the social brain but what intrigues me is the observation that sometimes “scientific facts” concerning (almost) invisible matter do become socially important and sometimes they do not. Why for example is there no public outcry against electromagnetic waves, why no masses of infuriated parents who sue mobile phone companies for intoxicating their children? Why on the other hand has radioactivity caused so many parents (in Germany at least) to leave their houses and protest for cold long hours in front of nuclear sites? Sometimes we observe that “scientific facts” become socially important on a different level as the cultural comparison of the handling of radioactivity clearly shows (Radkau 2011; 214ff.). What we learn from these observations is that there seems to be an interrelation between scientific fact and its social handling.
And this is what this paper is about: it tries to retrace the social careers of scientific facts. For this it is unimportant if these facts are “true” by whatever standard. From a sociological standpoint it is far more interesting to see what happens when these facts reach society and are socially absorbed. So this is not a scientific paper in the sense that it wishes to understand the “true nature” of electromagnetic waves and pesticides but it rather wishes to understand the “social nature” of these matters.
To narrow down this field of research I am not going to talk about all kinds of scientific facts but only about electromagnetic waves and pesticides (as do the other articles in this book) and regard them as invisible social actants. What might be meant by that shall be described later on but the virtue of arguing in such a way shall already be explained: by putting stress on the invisiblity of these social actants they become comparable with other invisible actants such as radioactive waves.
Further on I shall concentrate on political rather than social careers of these two actants. The political arena shall be described as a social “field” mostly in the sense introduced by Pierre Bourdieu – a point of view which will be discussed at more length in the course of the paper. The political career of the invisible social actants will be retraced by searching for metaphors that are used in the political arena to describe them. This idea goes back to Andreas Pettenkofer’s sociology of the Green movement in Germany who persuaded me that it was through the introduction of what he calls “strong metaphors” that radioactivity could become an important political factor in Germany. What a “strong metaphor” might be remains to be analysed which will be done in the course of the paper.
This paper might best be read as a thought experiment in which I bring together different sociological concepts and ideas and try to gain some fruitful ideas from this new mixture. To get at least some feedback from social reality as to how fruitful this thought experiment actually is I shall also quote from a little empirical study I undertook to test the sociological potential of Andreas Pettenkofers “strong metaphor” idea.
In a questionnaire I addressed to politically active people in Germany on European, national and regional level I asked them to describe pesticides and electromagnetic waves for me. The aim of the questionnaire was to test the hypothesis that the appearance of strong metaphors makes the political career of an invisible actant really predictable. The outcome of the questionnaire will be analyse in the last part of this article.
Hier auch als Vortrag im Juni 2015 (excuse my French):
1. Invisible Actants
Sociology has a long tradition of theories regarding social action. Most of them date back to Max Weber who described social action to be among the observable aspects of social life and thus particularly interesting for sociological research. Max Weber’s (1907) focus was on the subjective meanings that human actors attach to their actions in their mutual orientations within specific social-historical contexts.
For the sociological tradition there are but human actors concerned with social action. But Bruno Latour (2007) has introduced the idea into sociological thinking that a social action is not necessarily addressed to or provoked by a human actor. By social actions Bruno Latour (2004; 114) means: “that they modify other actors” („qu’ils modifient d’autres acteurs par une suite de transformations élémentaires dont on peut dresser une liste grace à un protocole d’expériences.”)
Such a modification is equally thinkable as addressed to or provoked by a non- human actant. A weight attached to a hotel-key makes it much more likely for this key to be returned to the reception. A sleeping policeman is no human being but still it makes us slow down our cars (Latour 2007). One can take this idea further and try to consider the social input of invisible actants. This has been done quite fruitfully by other social scientist. Pascale Moity Maizi (2014) recently described social discourses as invisible actants and I very much agree with Adalbert Piette (1999; S. 24) that the gods and spirits of a given society might be very well described as „invisible actants“ in the Latour’ian sense. The following quote which is said to be by the Chinese thinker Confucius (551—479 B.C.) is – as I think – very descriptive as far of the social importance of invisible actants is concerned: they modify our lives and make us do things we would not do if we did not think them to be important:
„How abundantly do spiritual beings display the powers that belong to them! We look for, but do not see them; we listen for, but do not hear them; yet they enter into all things, and there is nothing without them. They cause all the people in the empire to fast and purify themselves, and array themselves in their richest dresses, in order to attend at their sacrifices.“ (Giles 2012; p. 24)
By giving this quote I am not implying that the social handling of invisible scientific facts is something like a religion but on a social level it might well be argued that there is at least an interrelation between invisible scientific facts and social behaviour towards them. A scientific fact is not only a matter of fact but it is part of the social network and integrated therein (Latour 1997). Shaking hands for example is regarded as a social standard in the eastern part of Germany regardless the risk of transferring (invisible) germs and bacteria whereas these germs and bacteria are often named as the main reason for people in the West of Germany not to shake hands (Hoffmann 2012).
In the article I regard electromagnetic waves and pesticides as invisible actants in the political field. Whilst they might be visible to the physicist or the chemist they are invisible to those who talk about them in the political arena. I say: political arena because it is impossible to find out about the social career of a term without making clear in what kind of sociality this career takes place. As my interest goes to the political life of invisible actants I shall concentrate on what might be called “political field”. What this might be will be discussed in the following passage.
2. The Political Field
One problem this article faces is that it is somewhat difficult to frame the social groups in an appropriate manner who participate in the socialisation of scientific facts as they are interesting to us in this paper. When I claim that strong metaphors shape the importance of an invisible political actant a question remains to be answered: whom are theses metaphors used by and what kind of political Umwelt do they influence? Do I talk about the general public? This is to broad a concept to be tackled in an appropriate manner. Or do I talk about the media? Of course they are the transporters of metaphoric language but they do not create the metaphors in question. Do I talk about communication in a political system? All these approaches do not help me to answer the question of who actually talks, and is listened to and is therefore part of the communication process that makes metaphors politically strong.
To explain my problem let me use an example: during the 1980s the question of garbage incineration made a lot of unexpected participants take part in public debates in Germany. The local public administrations had to deal with teachers, doctors, housewives etc. who never before (and never since) participated in political debates. Most of the public relation services in public administrations date back from this experience. All of a sudden a political topic brought forward a politically interested public that was not there before and ceased to exist soon afterwards. So when I want to talk about “the public”, “the political system” or “the political communication” I face the problem that there is a giant flow of actors now interested in the topic but maybe tomorrow not interested any more.
The easiest way to handle this problem seems to be to talk about a political field in the sense that Pierre Bourdieu (2013; 97-112) has introduced into sociology. A field in this sense is “an autonomous microcosm within the social macrocosm” (2013; 97) that bases on “implicit assumptions” which are accepted by all participants (2013; 101). The political field is a place of competing forms of political statements and behaviours between which the not-participating citizen – “who is reduced to the status of consumer” – can only chose. The term “field” – dating back to the magnetic and electronic fields discovered by modern physics – describes all those who are in a way “electrified” by a political problem and enter the arena of ideological and conceptional combat described by Bourdieu as the “political field” (Bourdieu 1981, pp. 3-4).
I chose the political field because the case of radioactivity has shown that invisible actants can become very important in public debates. They do nevertheless not become equally important to any member of a given society as there are large parts of the population who do not bother about them. It is within a part of society that invisible actants can gather a certain notoriety.
Whereas “spiritual beings” are part of a religious field and x-rays can be found in the medical field, the political field is able to integrate terms of different origin, when they become part of a political struggle. They then change their meaning and context in order to become political terms i.e. terms of combat.
3. Political Metaphors
The political debate often has to deal with invisible phenomena (“the state”, “the people”, “public morals” etc.) and often uses metaphors to describe them (“the body politic”, “head of state” etc.). This paper is interested in metaphors because they are thought to be important in the description of invisible actants in the political field. But in order to understand why they might be important we need to see from closer range what a metaphor is in the sense of this paper and what might be meant by a “strong metaphor”, a term introduced by the sociologist Andreas Pettenkofer. As Pettenkofer’s terminology will be used in the further course of this paper we will have to have a closer look at it too.
3.1. Metaphors in the Political Field
One of the most successful metaphors in the political field is the “right-wing / left wing”-metaphor which uses the picture of a political space to describe different or even opposing political concepts (Bobbio 1994). It is quite impressive to look at the history of this metaphor of the political space which started its career in the French Assemblée Nationale in 1789. In August of this important year the grand political divide was between those who opposed the king’s right to veto the assemblée’s decisions and those who supported it. The opponents and supporters more and more tended to sit together in order to unite their forces. The supporters of monarchical rights would sit right to the assemblée’s president and the opponents would sit to his left (Rémond 1982; S. 33).
From now on people will speak about the „côté droite / côté gauche“ (right side / left side), when referring to certain political groups. But it will take until the 1890s until candidates refer to themselves as being „from the right / left“ (Gauchet 1992; S. 399ff.).
We are now so much used to seeing the political field as divided in two spatial spheres that it is almost impossible to think beyond this spatial metaphor even though sociologists (justly) claim that it explains less and less the political landscape of our societies (Nassehi 2015).
What the German Philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1998) described for the case of philosophy seems to be the case for the political field as well: that our thinking is based on the use of metaphors that cannot be transformed into more “objective” terms. Hans Blumenberg calls the kind of philosophical metaphor “absolute metaphor” “which cannot be dissolved into another terminology” (Blumenberg 1998; 12f.). He shows that philosophy deals for example with “naked truths” that are “brought to light” which have never been dressed nor undressed. Absolute metaphors are those metaphors that cannot be no metaphors. Strong metaphors in the Pettenkoferian sense might also be no metaphors but are so descriptive that one cannot talk about reality without getting in touch with their worldview. Blumenberg (1997) shows in fact how much we get used to seeing our world through the images brought to us by metaphors.
(When one takes the term „metaphor“ literally and goes back to the Greek word μεταφορά („tansfer“) one realises that the whole linguistic cosmos we move in is in fact made out of metaphors. There is a whole world of imaginary transfers from one context to the other that help us to get a grasp at what we would like to describe as “the world”. We would never for example expect a table to walk away, yet we call the machines that enable a table to stay where it is „leg“. Time has never been seen by anybody, yet its volatile character makes us say that it “flies”. And a discoverer does not really pull off a cover from something but rather uses methods to describe something new. The metaphor of dizziness might best be applied to the state one gets in when one realises just how metaphoric our linguistic worldview actually is.)
3.2. “Strong Metaphors”
Andreas Pettenkofer (2014; 29) has written extensively about the birth of the Green political movement in Germany. Among his many interesting findings the most interesting for the purposes of the paper is his discovery of the politically “strong metaphor” that made it possible for nuclear energy to become a political actant in Germany in the late 1970s. While in the early 1970s the radical left did not consider nuclear energy as anything to write home about, the introduction of the term “Atomtod” (“nuclear death”) into the political debate brought up nuclear energy as an important invisible political actant. The 1950s had known the term already but then it was used only to describe the effects of nuclear weapons. The later 1970s witnessed an important transfer of context: from nuclear weapons to nuclear sites. But this was not all: as the nuclear sites in construction were protected with barbed wire they were also compared to concentration camps. The metaphor “Atomtod” gained a double sense: for one, nuclear energy is said to kill by itself but its murderous potentials are also insinuated as being used on purpose. Metaphors that compared nuclear sites with concentration camps became popular in the political field and nuclear sites became regarded as visible sign of capitalist misanthropy (Pettenkofer 2014; 288).
What is important for the argumentation of my paper is that it is not the invisible thing (in this case: radioactivity) itself that becomes a political actant but a thing described with the help of a metaphor. So my argumentation goes on by assuming that any invisible concept like radioactivity or radio-waves can only become an invisible political actant when it appears dressed up in a strong metaphor that makes it politically treatable.
Other than “absolute meatphors” that Hans Blumenberg talked about “strong metaphors” can well be described in non-metaphorical terms. Metaphors might be regarded as “strong” in the sense proposed by Pettenkofer when they have the capacity of changing a worldview dramatically. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (2014) gives another example from the religious field that might illustrate the meaning of “strong metaphors” in the sense I want to use the term in. According to Sloterdijk Jesus’ idea of calling God “Father” (John 20,17) was revolutionary in the history of religions. God was personalised in such a degree that religion changed from a legal to a personal structure:
„The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known“ (John 1, 17f.).
God is described by John as an invisible actant and its true nature can be understood by the use of the father-metaphor. The popularity of religious father figures like popes (“papa” in Italian), abbots and unmarried and childless “fathers” indicates to Sloterdijk (2014; 278ff.) the tremendous success of what I would like to call a “strong metaphor”.
A strong metaphor is a metaphor that describes the essence and the effect of a concept, idea or thing so convincingly that it is understood and shared by a majority of participants within the social field it is crucial for. Strong metaphors generate “new nexuses that were not thinkable before” and their use can reach the status of “paradigms and guide the world views of their users” (Pettenkofer 2014, 29).
4. Electromagnetic Waves and Pesticides as Invisible Actors: The Questionnaire
Let us now bring the ideas developed above together and let us assume that electromagnetic waves and pesticides can both be regarded as invisible actants in the political field. What kind of metaphors are there to describe them and are there strong metaphors among them? These questions stood at the centre of a research I did asking politically active people on different levels of importance and activity to fill out a questionnaire for me.
This questionnaire was not at all sophisticated but rather asked the questions directly it searched answers for: How electromagnetic waves and pesticides could be associated with other terms and what kind of metaphor might be used to make describe them. The group of people where also not chosen randomly but rather via acquaintance: I asked friends in parliaments on European, national, regional and local level and befriended political journalists to send the questionnaire to colleagues and friends of theirs. This rather coarse approach was due to the fact that the research program I did this research for was still hoping for financial support at the time and my intention was rather to show the possibilities that lie in this kind of research than to do a proper research itself. As the financial support has not come I shall not be able to go into more depth which is why I shall present the results of my – admittedly shallow – research here.
In all I received 26 answers to my questionnaire which was generated with surverymonkey. How biased my choice of actors in the political field actually is can be seen from their political positioning: none of them declared herself or himself to be from the political right (whereas about 30% of the German population do). So the results cannot be regarded as anywhere near statistical validity. But still I think the answers give us some idea of how the political arena deals with electromagnetic waves and pesticides.
I first asked my interviewees to associate the word “pesticide” with a choice of other terms (danger, progress, food, infertility, poison or other). Seven of them associated pesticides with “danger”, and eleven associated it with “food”. Almost 100% (25) associated “pesticides” with “poison”. Only one interviewee saw an interrelation between pesticides and “progress”.
Then I asked for a metaphor they would use to describe pesticides. It cannot be of any surprise that the most successful metaphor was in fact “poison” (13 propositions). Other metaphors proposed were “herbicide” (4 suggestions), “spraying” and “plant protection” (both 3 suggestions).
When asked how they got in touch with the topic of pesticides 16 answered that it was mainly via media coverage on the topic, 9 said they discussed the issue among friends and 7 said their political office brought them into contact with the question of pesticides.
4.2. Electromagnetic Waves
The words my interviewees associated “electromagnetic waves” with most were: communication (24), electro-smog (15), progress (7) and danger (4). There was no metaphor my interviewees could agree on. The most mentioned were “radiation” (5), (radio-)waves (5), and “invisible” (3). There was not one metaphor applied to describe electromagnetic waves that was popular with the majority of the interviewees. But the most drastic – and esoteric – metaphors were to be found here. One was “brain cancer”, another “getting grilled under the cell phone tower” and one was “floating through ether”.
When asked how they got in touch with the topic of pesticides 16 answered that it was mainly via media coverage on the topic, 9 said they discussed the issue among friends and 3 said their political office brought them into contact with the question of pesticides.
4.3. No Strong Metaphors so far
What becomes very obvious when looking at the results of the questionnaire is that at this very moment there seems to be no strong metaphor that is used in the political field to describe electromagnetic waves and pesticides. People who are active in politics seem to have to deal with the topic more passively (i.e. while watching the news). If they have debates about our two invisible actants it is rather with friends than with people in the political field (which in most cases might be the same people but a different kind of conversation). Particularly electromagnetic waves seem to be irrelevant for politically active people: only three of the say they are actually dealing with the topic.
Further on there does not really seem to be a problem. Whilst pesticides are regarded as poisonous to the great majority of the interviewees they do not seem to be more than that. They are not described as the terrible invention of a ill meaning enemy, they are not vested with the technical possibilities for an apocalypse – they are just not good.
Electromagnetic waves on the other hand even enjoy a positive status as being part of the technical issues that enable modern communication. The “waves” that are used to describe them metaphorically do not have an implicitly negative touch. There are nonetheless exceptions of some very strong (but minoritarian) metaphors that deal with electromagnetic waves’ lethal potentials. But it looks as if the positive aspect of electromagnetic waves overlaps all general attempts to see some kind of threat in them.
All in all a quotation from one of my interviewees seems to sum up the result of the research quite beautifully: “Pesticides were a big issue in the 1970s and 80s, electromagnetic waves instead are a subject – I think – of esoteric debates.” In both cases there does not seem to be a metaphor strong enough to become imminent in the political field.
When looking at chemical and physical entities as “invisible actants” one gets the advantage of seeing the matter of interest solely from a sociological point of view. I think this is the most interesting result of this thought game we just went through. It does not matter to sociological research what physical traits electromagnetic waves have. What matter ist the socialisation of electromagnetic waves and this can be made visible by assuming that electromagnetic waves are actants of a given society.
What is tricky is to set out the social terrain one wishes to observe as it is impossible to research the career of an invisible actant in “the” society as a whole. Bourdieu’s idea of social fields is quite helpful but not totally convincing. It does not explain who actually takes part in the game and why actors join and leave the political field.
The idea of the strong metaphor sounds very convincing to me but the problem remains that the impact of such a metaphor can only be measured once you know about the structure where the impact actually takes place. So the weak point of this idea is concerned with the trouble of locating the terrain of impact socially. If you take for example current events it is quite fascinating that the Islamic State seems to prosper intellectually on apocalyptic ideas that have been unpopular for most of the islamic history. So where do all the apocalyptically minded jihadist come from and how come they joined the political field all at the same time? And is this field an international one or can it be located somewhere in one nation state or in another?
Still I think that “strong metaphors” is something that is worth searching for. They have the capacity of turning over public debates in various social fields and can change the landscape of social activity. It might also be worth the while to look at the metaphorolgy of minoritarian groups with no big social influence to learn something for example about radicalisation processes or minoritarian communication processes.
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Erstmals erschienen in: Bernhard Kreße, Elisabeth Lambert Abdelgawad (ed.): Governance and Perceptions of Hazardous Activities, Hagen 2017; S. 83-96.