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An anthropologist and philosopher, Bruno Latour was one of the most prominent and prolific French intellectuals in recent times.

Latour was born in 1947 in Beaune in Burgundy, the youngest of eight children in a winemaking family, Maison Louis Latour, that has been in operation since the 17th century. He graduated from the French national competitive exam, the Agrégation in 1972, ranked first in the nation. A practising Catholic, his PhD was on theology and interpretation and he went on to work with the eclectic philosopher Michel Serres with whom he later wrote a dialogical text, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995), originally Eclaircissements (1990), which worked to build bridges between the sciences and the humanities.

Latour’s military, or rather civic, service took him to Abidjan on the Ivory Coast where he was affiliated with an organisation called ORSTROM (Institut Français de recherche scientifique pour le développement en cooperation). The director at the time was anthropologist Marc Augé, who later became well-known for Non-Places. Latour published a report in 1974, with Amina Shabou, Les ideologies de la compétence en milieu industriel à Abidjan (Or in English, Ideologies of competence in the industrial sector in Abidjan). The brief was to study why there were no African executives being hired by engineering firms. Latour and Sabou discovered that African students were being trained inappropriately, with abstract theory and no contact with the actual machines that might have to deal with. This work bridging decolonisation and industrialisation helped to shape Latour as an unusual social scientist; his anthropology never became ‘exotic’ because of his interest in doing ethnographies and philosophical anthropologies of ‘Western’ institutions, those he was later to dub ‘the Moderns’, as in the influential We Have Never Been Modern (1993 [originally 1991]) translated into over a dozen languages. After Africa, he moved to California where he met the British sociologist Steve Woolgar. Together they started an ethnography of a neuroendocrinology laboratory directed by the 1977 Nobel Prize winner for medicine, Roger Guillemin, another Burgundian who knew Latour’s family. This work later resulted in the ground-breaking Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (Latour and Woolgar, 1979), a book informed by ethnomethodology, which was foundational in what was to become STS, science and technology studies.

We Have Never Been Modern (1993), was mostly drafted in Australia in the late 1980s, when Latour was a visiting scholar at the University of Melbourne. He shared an office with Helen Verran, who is still working in STS. She recalls him giving a public lecture on the book, and the Melbourne ladies, adorned in winter fur coats and jewels, being taken aback to hear that they had never been modern.

Latour worked for more than twenty years (1982–2006) at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation at the École des Mines in Paris. Focussing on technologies and practices, this sociology was at odds with the dominant Marxist orthodoxies of figures like Pierre Bourdieu. Latour was thus on the margins of the revolutionary soixante-huitard groups of May ‘68, who were sceptical of what was one of Latour’s main ideas: society is not just made up of groups of people struggling with each other, because things are often significant actors. From this, Actor-Network Theory (ANT) became a dominant method in STS where non-human agencies have been extensively explored ever since. Proposing the idea of a ‘parliament of things’, in an exhibition and book called Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (2005), Latour and his collaborators sought to democratise ‘society’ by including non-humans, an idea which proved useful for ecologists, and for environmentalists concerned about the agency of the changing climate. Henceforth the climate was no longer seen as an externality (to economics and politics), sequestered in Nature where only Science could understand it: now more philosophical approaches were called for. Latour was influential in the critique of the Nature-Culture opposition, which was axiomatic for Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, but by no means universal, as pointed out by feminist scholars such as Val Plumwood and anthropologists like Philippe Descola and Eduardo Vivieros de Castro.

In 2006, Latour moved to the prestigious Sciences Po school, where he was the first occupant of a chair named for Gabriel Tarde, whose sociology had rivalled that of Durkheim. With this appointment, he founded the Médialab and a Master’s in Arts and Politics (SPEAP), which offered him a programme and space to experiment in an inter- and trans-disciplinary fashion. For him, doing science in the twenty-first century was a matter of ‘dramatising matters of concern’, because the sciences were never pure or disinterested. He thus engaged with the public and the arts in important ways. Already from his early writings on, he used diagrams, comic strips, photographs or different writing styles not common in the social sciences. He was a key figure, along with Vivieros de Castro, with the ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology, and at the same time influencing ‘object-oriented ontology’ in philosophy. He was a master of an original writerly way of reasoning coining memorable phrases such as ‘follow the actors’, ‘Nature is not a backdrop to human dramas’, or ‘critique running out of steam’. He curated four exhibitions, full of important art and technology, with Peter Weibel for the ZKM museum in Karlsruhe, Germany: Iconoclash (2002), Making Things Public (2005), Reset Modernity! (2016) and Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth (2020); he wrote a play, Gaïa Global Circus, with his daughter Chloé Latour and Frédérique Ait-Touati that was also adapted for radio in 2011.

Latour had a huge network of allies, fellow researchers in science, technology and philosophy such as Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway, John Law, Rita Felski and myself (in the Humanities), Patrice Maniglier, Graham Harman, Gerard de Vries and Anders Blok (the last four being among those who have written monographs on Latour). In the process, Latour helped create, mainly with Stengers, a Francophone school of pragmatist philosophy (inspired by the American tradition), moving beyond disciplinary boundaries and promoting the influential concept of ‘cosmopolitics’, as elaborated in Philippe Pignarre’s Latour-Stengers: An Entangled Flight (2023), which I translated. He had decades-long and productive exchanges and epistemological experiments in the anthropologies of knowledge with Shirley Strum, Adam Lowe of the Factum Arte Foundation, Simon Schaffer and John Tresch. He had important dialogues with the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, for instance in Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth (2020), about climate change and the anthropocene. Over many years, he collaborated with translators such as Catherine Porter.

His Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2013) was an experiment in multiple ontologies and a continuation of his critique of ‘Western’ modernity. It made networking explicit by ‘crowd-sourcing’ collaborators using the internet, and a dedicated website, and a week-long workshop that I attended at the Ecole des Mines in July 2014 with about fifty international participants. This collaborative experiment was something philosophy, or anthropology, had never done before. We debated his sixteen different ‘modes of existence’, associated with the institutions of the law, economics, politics, religion, etc, as Latour strove to describe their autonomy from each other at the same time as writing, finally, after twenty-five years of thinking and research, his ‘anthropology of the Moderns’.

His Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (2007) had a significant impact on sociology, while at the same time Latour ramped up his interventions on ecological questions such as the climate crisis. From Politics of Nature: East and West Perspectives (2004), to Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (2017) and Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2018), there is a growing urgency in Latour’s writings in demanding a move from scientific isolationism to a plurality of approaches, even suggesting the climate crisis was introducing a revolution in every field of thought; every modern institution would have to be ‘reset’.

Throughout his highly productive and busy life Latour delivered innumerable lectures (such as the Gifford lectures which became Facing Gaia), and the keynote ‘Land and People, once Again’ at the 2020 RAI and Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers “Anthropology and Geography: Dialogues Past, Present and Future” Digital Conference. He received many awards such as the Unseld Prize 2008, the Holberg Prize 2013, the Spinoza Prize 2020 and the Kyoto Prize 2021. The Holberg prize committee stated that ‘Bruno Latour has undertaken an ambitious analysis and reinterpretation of modernity, and has challenged fundamental concepts such as the distinction between modern and pre-modern, nature and society, human and non-human.’

Latour died from pancreatic cancer on 9 October 2022, at the age of 75, and was survived by his wife Chantal and his daughter Chloé, his son Robinson, and three grandchildren.

Stephen Muecke

To cite this article:

MUECKE, STEPHEN. 2024 ‘Bruno Latour, 1947 – 2022’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, April 2024. (available online:


TRESCH, JOHN. 2023 ‘Eloge: Bruno Latour (1947–2022)’. History of Science Society, June 2023. (available online: