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Faculty of Social Sciences

Staff Profile

Prof John Law

Emeritus Professor



Co-Director of ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) and Director of the Social Life of Method Theme within CRESC

Research interests

General Approach

I'm interdisciplinary in inclination. Part sociologist and part from STS (science, technology and society), I've worked with sociologists, philosophers, engineers, medical practitioners, geographers and students of STS. The world is interdisciplinary, and it demands an interdisciplinary approach of the kind being developed in CRESC.

I assume that the world is materially heterogeneous, a mix of the social, economic, material, human, 'natural', and technical. We need rigorous ways of thinking and studying these heterogeneous processes. That's why I've worked with actor-network theory and its successor 'material-semiotic' projects. ANT isn't the only way of thinking about heterogeneity. Different approaches are needed, and this is another CRESC strength. But, suitably modulated, material-semiotics is a useful toolkit (certainly not a theory!) for catching some of the important processes of social life.

I take it that the world is discursively heterogeneous. I'm fascinated and horrified by the exclusions of the social. Systems both depend on and Other the people, collectivities and realities that fail to fit. If there's an enemy here in addition to injustice then it is hubris. This means that in my research I go looking for gaps, aporias, and subaltern realities. Parts of my work draw on postcolonial sensibilities to imagine alternative knowledge spaces.

Finally, I'm concerned with the performativity of method. In different ways CRESC members are exploring the character of research methods in domains ranging from financialisation, to the digital modelling of cities, and the remaking of social science methods. There's a performative argument here. This is that methods tend to produce – though often in unanticipated and contradictory ways – the worlds they claim to be describing. This is why I'm so excited about the CRESC 'social life of method' SLOM theme. This is a space for debating methods and the social in a wide-ranging interdisciplinary forum. I'm hoping that STS work will add to this conversation.


I'm lucky enough to work closely with colleagues in a range of disciplines and locations and I'm starting to work with new OU and CRESC colleagues. People I've worked with in the recent past include: Michel Callon (Paris CSI), Marianne Lien (Oslo), Wen-yuan Lin (Hsinchu, Taiwan), Annemarie Mol (Amsterdam), Ingunn Moser (Oslo), Vicky Singleton (Lancaster), John Urry (Lancaster), and Helen Verran (Melbourne).

Current Research Projects

Non-coherent methods: If the world is non-coherent, then what are the methods we need to know it, to enact it, and to live well in it? This is my core question in a continuing series of substantive projects.

People, technologies and animals: With anthropologists Marianne Lien and Gro Ween (University of Oslo) I'm working ethnographically on salmon farming on a project called 'Newcomers to the Farm'. How do animals and people interact? How are those interactions mediated by technologies? How are human beings and animals being remade? These are our core questions.

Biosecurity, agriculture and disaster: I continue to work on foot and mouth disease, and the UK response to the disease outbreak of 2001. What are the vulnerabilities of agricultural systems? And how can and such complex and (in the end) ramshackle systems be understood and controlled? These are my key questions.

Alternative knowledge spaces: This is work with Wen-yuan Lin (Tsing-hua University, Taiwan). What are the alternatives to systems of hegemonic knowledge? And how can we detect the Othering that goes with hegemony? These are our central questions.

Recent publications

A selection of my research publications can be viewed at The Open University's Open Research Online.

Non-coherent method

John Law (forthcoming, 2010), 'Collateral Realities', Fernando Domínguez Rubio and Patrick Baert (eds), The Politics of Knowledge, London, Routledge.

John Law (2009), 'Assembling the World by Survey: Performativity and Politics', Cultural Sociology, 3, 2, 239-256.

John Law (2007), 'Making a Mess with Method', in William Outhwaite and Stephen P. Turner (eds), The Sage Handbook of Social Science Methodology, Sage: Beverly Hills and London, pp 595-606.

John Law, (2007) 'Pinboards and Books: Learning, Materiality and Juxtaposition', in David Kritt and Lucien T. Winegar (eds.) Education and Technology: Critical Perspectives, Possible Futures, Lanham: Maryland, pp 125-150.

John Law (2004), 'And if the Global Were Small and Non-Coherent? Method, Complexity and the Baroque', Society and Space, 22, 13-26.

People, technologies and animals

Marianne Lien and John Law (forthcoming 2010), 'Emergent Aliens': On Salmon, Nature and Their Enactment', Ethnos.

Law, John and Mol, Annemarie (forthcoming 2010), 'Veterinary realities: what is foot and mouth disease?' Sociologia Ruralis.

John Law (forthcoming, 2010), 'Care and Killing: Tensions in Veterinary Practice', in Annemarie Mol, Ingunn Moser and Jeannette Pols (eds), Care in Practice: on Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms, Transcript, Bielefeld, pp. 57-69.

John Law & Vicky Singleton (2009), 'A Further Species of Trouble?', Martin Doering & Brigitte Nerlich (eds), From Mayhem to Meaning: The Cultural Meaning of the 2001 Outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in the UK, Manchester, pp. 229-242.

John Law and Annemarie Mol (2008), 'The Actor-Enacted: Cumbrian Sheep in 2001' Lambros Malafouris & Carl Knappett, Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach, Springer, pp. 55-77.

Law, John (2008), 'Practising Nature and Culture: an Essay for Ted Benton', in Sandra Moog and Rob Shields (eds), Nature, Social Relations and Human Needs: Essays in Honour of Ted Benton, London: Palgrave, pp 65-82.

Biosecurity, Agriculture and Disaster

John Law and Annemarie Mol (2008), 'Globalisation in Practice: On the Politics of Boiling Pigswill', Geoforum, 39: (1), 133-143.

John Law (2008), 'Culling, Catastrophe and Collectivity', Distinktion, 16, 61-76.

John Law (2006), 'Disaster in Agriculture, or Foot and Mouth Mobilities', Environment and Planning A, 38, 227-239.

Andrew Smith, Catherine Wild and John Law (2005), 'The Barrow-in-Furness legionnaires' outbreak: qualitative study of the hospital response and the role of the major incident plan', Emergency Medicine Journal, 22 (2005), 251-255.

Alternative knowledge spaces

John Law and Wen-yuan Lin (submitted), 'Cultivating Disconcertment'.

Other publications

John Law, (in press, 2010), 'The Materials of STS', Dan Hicks & Mary Beaudry (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies, OUP, pp. 171-186.

John Law (2008), 'On STS and Sociology', The Sociological Review, 56, 4, 623-649.

John Law (2008), 'Actor-Network Theory and Material Semiotics', in Bryan S. Turner, The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory 3rd Edition, Blackwell, pp. 141-158.

Michel Callon and John Law (2005), 'On Qualculation, Agency and Otherness', Society and Space, 23, 717-733.

John Law and John Urry (2004), 'Enacting the Social', Economy and Society, 33, 3, 390-410.

Annemarie Mol and John Law (2004), 'Embodied Action, Enacted Bodies. The Example of Hypoglycaemia', The Body and Society, 10, 2-3, 43-62.

A repository of research publications and other research outputs can be viewed at The Open University's Open Research Online.

Last updated: 28 September 2012