Bruno Latour – The Pasteurization of France


Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, Harvard UP, 1988.

What can we write on (the history of) invisible microbes? Maybe we can write on how the medical and biological sciences could have dominated and controlled the diseases and the bacteria. Considering that this book, The Pasteurization of France was originally published in France in 1984 with a little different title than English translation, The Microbes: War and Peace Followed by Irreductions (Les microbes: guerre et paix suivi de irrédutions), we can guess that the author might have been interested more in microbes than Pasteur. Latour’s presupposition here is that it does not matter whether the main characters of the story are scientists, microbes, or the bureaucrats, in the sense that each actor in the network is playing a unique role depending on the power relation. This book is about the complex networks among nature, science, and society, but to clarify the relation of forces, it is divided into two parts, as the French title alludes. While the first part is focusing on the “empirical” based on historical facts and discursive analysis, the second part the “theoretical” composed of philosophical axioms.

In the first part of the book, beginning with the historical anecdote in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which depicts Napoleon army’s defeat in a battle with Russian troops in 1812, Latour investigates the social and historical process in which Pasteurian scientists and hygienists have influenced France and then the world by defeating terrible diseases such as anthrax in 1811. While Napoleon’s army was defeated in the Russian battlefield, Pasteur won the victory over microbes in the laboratory battle field. Though they seem to have no direct relations with each other at a glance, two wars have something in common and they meet at a certain point. When the state (politics) requires healthier people to defend the country and to fight against the enemy, the pasteurization and vaccination (science) might be one of the strongest solutions. This implies that science is not “free of war and politics”(5) and that, in a Foucauldian sense, the body is the most important part that what we call politics is interested in. In that respect, Latour does not think that a revolutionary scientific discovery or invention is the result of a laboratory work by a great scientist alone. Instead, it is a result of the war, where the multiple forces from the social, economic, political, and cultural levels are interconnected. In other words, in order to know what has happened in the war, whether it is the war in the battle field or the war in the laboratory, we should know nothing but the power relation among the actors in the system – who are allies and who are enemies and how they are associated with each other. Though the hard sciences in the laboratory is generally regarded as pure from social forces, “we have to give evidence that ‘science’ and ‘society’ are both explained more adequately by an analysis of the relations among forces and that they become mutually inexplicable and opaque when made to stand apart”(7).

However, when it comes to the “war and peace of microbes,” the most critical force comes from microbes themselves – they are the most powerful actors in the battlefield. Thus, in Latour’s view, Pasteurism is not only the product of social relations, but also the result of intervention of nature (microbes) to society and interconnection between them. That is to say, it is not just one most powerful actor (such as a scientist) who dominates all other actors in the network. Regarding this matter, Latour describes his method in this book as remaining open so that we do not need to prescribe the role and power of each agent:

The method I use does not require us to decide in advance on a list of actors and possible actions. If we open the scientific literature of the time, we find stories that define for us who are the main actors, what happens to them. […] We do not have to decide for ourselves what makes up our world, who are the agents “really” acting in it […] Nor do we have to know in advance what is important and […] negligible.(9)

Everything (actors, actions, and power relations) in the story (reviews on the scientific literature of the time) will be explained if we do not predetermine who will be the main character. As this method allows us “to understand at once the content of a science and its context,” Latour’s discursive re-construction through “the presentation of the documentary materials does not follow the historical path but rather the network of associations that slowly make up the Pasteurian world”(12).

Thus, what Latour founds in the scientific literature of Pasteur’s time might be somewhat different from our present expectation. For instance, let’s think about the question like whether Pasteur’s scientific revolution was created only by himself in his laboratory with his own experiment. Was it the result of a great single genius scientist? Latour argues that, though it is the idea of genius, there should be the diffusion of an idea and the transformation of it to be successfully innovative. Moreover, the diffusion and transformation of the scientific idea was not independent from the social interest. Pasteurism might have flourished in the social situation of the time when French society was obsessed with the program of socio-political reforms (“regeneration of man”) as a social movement. And the most powerful agent in the diffusion and translation of Pasteurism was hygienists.

However, what Latour tries to investigate is neither that society simply constructs the natural reality nor that nature determines social conditions. According to his “Actor-Network Theory,” which was implicitly presented in the book, the successful innovation in science and technology is possible only when the diverse and heterogeneous actors (or agents), whether they are human or nonhuman, “macroparasites” or “microparasites,” ally with each other and construct a stable network. When anthrax was pandemic throughout Europe, the most powerful actor was microbes. However, the power relation was reversed as soon as the Pasteurians redefined the social link, regained the power, and then “became the spokesmen for these new innumerable, invisible, and dangerous agents”(39) by isolating microbes from other actors and making them visible through the laboratory works. And, in the process of pasteurization, it was the hygienists who made this scientific experiment a social (and political) movement. The ally between the Pasteurians and hygienists changed revolutionarily “the very conception of society and of what it comprises”(38) in the late nineteenth-century.

Behind the success of Pasteurism and hygienist movement, there was the Pasteurian strategy which consists of three phases: 1) to move the laboratory to the place where the phenomena to be retranslated are found (translation of the laboratory); 2) to move the phenomena transformed into a safe place, where certainty is increased because they are dominated; 3) to transform the initial conditions in such a way that the work carried out during the second stage will be applicable there (75). This strategy shows how Pasteurism has used its power to rearrange and redefine the actors’ positions and relations in the network through the way of flexibility, isolation, purification, reapplication, and the like. The most important effect of the Pasteurian project was that its dominance over nature (or science) paved the road to its supremacy over the society and politics. With the Pasteurian innovation, there left nothing untouched by its impact. Though society could put pressure on the scientists to solve the social problem, if the scientists redefined the whole composition in the network through their scientific innovation, science could reverse the direction of pressure. For example, the presence of the microbe redefined the meaning of individual liberty: “[…] no one had the right to contaminate others. In order to save everyone’s liberty, the contagious patient must be notified by the physician, isolated, disinfected, in short put out of harm’s way, like criminal”(123). We can glimpse here again that a sort of Foucauldian theme is operating in Latour’s view.

The second part of this book (“Irreductions”) is full of Nietzschean, Spinozian, or Machiavellian – thus still Foucauldian in some sense – intuitions on how power and knowledge, force and reason, nature and culture cannot and should not be reduced one another. And despite its aphorism-like style, the second part is in accordance with the first part very well. So to speak, Latour seems to repeat the same story differently, on the one hand as a social historian of science and on the other as a political philosopher. This unique trial might have contributed to his politico-scientific theory of network – if I call like that – coupled with his next work, We Have Never Been Modern.


· Multiple actors (forces) are related in a revolutionary event whether in politics or in science.

· There is no division between social and natural or human and inhuman actors.

· Science and politics as well have to be understood as the (power) relationship between the multiple actors.

· The actors (actants) in a network can be strong only by association with other actors.


  1. Hugh: As you note, this book articulates an early version of actor-network theory. (It seemed a later version to Anglophone audiences, because it was published in English after Science in Action, though it was actually written before that book). In retrospect, it’s maybe just as important for its attempt to theorize the nature of the laboratory and its relation to the wider society. Another epochal book, Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathon and the Air Pump, takes on the same task, looking at the way Robert Boyle turned the laboratory into a special place of power.

  2. Hello. I enjoyed reading your review from Latours The Pasterization of France. But I have some questions and remarks. First of all, it seems to me like you don’t take his metaphysics into account when you write: “This book is about the complex networks among nature, science, and society […].” and “Latour does not think that a revolutionary scientific discovery or invention is the result of a laboratory work by a great scientist alone. Instead, it is a result of the war, where the multiple forces from the social, economic, political, and cultural levels are interconnected.” As you know, Latour explicitly repeatedly wrote that metaphysics should be the starting-point of every theory and inquiry. There is not a network that links nature with science and society. Because you would need an a priori existing nature and society for this. Instead there are only actants (or actors) who are part of network and who are a network themselves. The same goes for the war. A war is not a connection of bits and pieces of other spheres. Only a (non)modern can use these concepts while investigating microbes and wars. Because (non)moderns have their nature/culture dualism and the constant process of purification to divide everything in these two ideal groups. This critique on the (non)moderns seems to me the most important part of Latour, because everything else he does is creating an alternative starting from this critique (eg. his relativism and social constructivism). He found the flaw in (non)modernism and he now has the task of creating an alternative without this flaw.

    Second remark I want to make is on your use of “translation”. I’ve had some trouble in finding the right meaning and use of this concept (especially in relationship with “transformation”). But in my reading, translation is about interests and intentions. The scientists translates the generals interests: You want to win the war? You will need new medication to fight diseases. Let me refer to Latour: “He who is able to translate others’ interests into his own language carries the day.” (Give me a Lab…p. 144) and The Pasteurians were to displace (or translate) the intentions of the hygienists by adopting their projects, while adding them an element that would strengthen both the hygienists and the Pasteurians.” (PoF, p. 34). So with that in mind I have some problem with your sentence: “1) to move the laboratory to the place where the phenomena to be retranslated are found (translation of the laboratory);” I think that in the laboratory the interests of Pasteur and the microbes merge. Pasteur want to find a cure and needs to multiply the microbes to investigate them. The microbes want to multiply. In Pasteurs lab they will get the best environment ever to multiply!

    The last point is merely an utterance of my ignorance. What do you mean by “Foucauldian” in this context? And/or can you advise me a good text where I can get to know the relevant parts of Michel Foucaults philosophy to understand Latour?

    Kind regards,

  3. Anonymous

    Thank you so much for your succinct and comprehensible summary of Latour’s book, as well as adequately drawing the links between the latter and ANT.

  4. Really helpful thanks!

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