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RICHARD VOKES

The house unbuilt: actor-networks, social


agency and the ethnography of a
residence in south-western Uganda

Anthropological theory has always shown a particular fascination for the subject of the house. However, Latours
work offers a signicant challenge for previous theorising in this area. Latour challenges the very idea of what a
house is, and encourages us to see the house as not a coherent form at all, so much as a multitude of (more or less
stable) assemblages. He also forces us to re-examine the relationship between constructed dwellings and the social,
encouraging us to see the former as having particular forms of agency within the latter. This article examines these
ideas in relation to the ethnography of one particular house in rural south-western Uganda.
Key words Bruno Latour, actor-network theory, anthropology of the house, Uganda, sanitation

Introduction
Over the last decade or so, a growing number of anthropologists have begun to
critically engage with the science studies of Bruno Latour. For those anthropologists
working in the eld of science and technology studies, in particular, Latours
(and Callons) concept of the actor-network has proved particularly useful for
analysis, and has opened up new ways of thinking about interconnections between
people and the material objects of science (not only DNA, viruses, plants, animals
and the like, but also the apparatus, machines and other objects that furnish the
scientic laboratory). At the heart of actor-network theory (ANT) lies an attempt
to dissolve any categorical distinction between people and non-human social actors,
both of which are reduced to a single category of actants. As Latour argues at length
in the polemical We Have Never Been Modern (1993), such a distinction is little more
than artice, one that has been particularly inuential in Western scientic thought
from the Enlightenment onwards, but that is nevertheless problematic. Instead, he
draws attention to the complex ways in which people and other orders of actants
continually constitute, and re-constitute, each other, in an endless production of
different sorts of hybridities. The argument is that while human action endlessly
shapes, and re-shapes, the material world, so too the objects of that world also
shape both human bodies and social domains. So fundamental are these interactions,
in fact, that it makes little sense to privilege either people or non-human actors
over the other. Instead, the two must be conceptualised as equally important
elements within identiable assemblages or actor-networks of relations. It is these
ubiquitous assemblages, not people or non-human actors alone, that produce social
effects (see also Latour 1996).
Science studies emerged as a distinct area of anthropological concern in the 1990s.
Following the various critiques of the politics and poetics of ethnography that had
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occurred in the preceding two decades, many anthropologists were at that time
attempting to redene their objects of analysis, away from studies of (apparently)
politically powerless, territorially and temporally bounded, non-Western others,
towards a focus on multiperspectival points of view, local and transnational sites
the changing velocities of space and time, the historical conditions in which capitalism
[has been] reshaping global power on an unprecedented scale, and the historical
conditions of Western theory and practice (Weiner 1993). In pursuit of this agenda,
a number of anthropologists began to study the sites of scientic production
themselves, and it was here that they engaged with ANT. For one thing, Latour himself
had rst developed several of his key ideas in an ethnographic study of a neuroendocrinology research laboratory at the Salk Institute in California. His seminal work
Laboratory Life, co-authored with Steve Woolgar in 1979, was one of the rst detailed
ethnographic accounts of scientic practice. More importantly, from the anthropological point of view, the concept of the actor-network provided a model for theorists to
think about scientic innovation as an outcome of not only technical processes, but a
combination of the social and the technical. In other words, it drew attention to the fact
that the instruments used in any given experiment are not neutral windows on the
world, but are instead as all objects of material culture socially located.
Furthermore, they are used in clearly demarcated and socially meaningful spaces:
laboratories. In addition, within the experimental context, they are used through
the execution of certain well-dened practices to produce yet more types of objects:
data. The experiment itself is therefore an assemblage, which outputs additional
hybrids as its effect. Later, a wide range of social constructs, from the scientists own
academic training to departmental funding agendas, combine with these outputs to
produce yet more effects: research outputs, patents and the like. The argument can
be extended to ever-widening scales, for example to also include such additional factors
as state research strategies, disciplinary objectives, and so on.
The present article is not a contribution to the anthropology of science. Instead, it
is an attempt to explore some of the possibilities of ANT for other areas of
ethnographic enquiry as well. In particular, it examines how an actor-network
approach may extend our thinking in relation to one of anthropologys historically
most favoured subjects: the social life of houses. To this end, I will begin with a brief
review of the various ways in which previous anthropologists have approached the
study of the house ethnographically, and deployed this theoretically, before going on
to show what additional insights might be yielded by ANT. I will end by examining
how these insights might be applied in the study of one particular domestic residence,
called eka ya Bwire. This residence really a series of dwellings is located in my main
eld site (in which I have been working since 1999), near the head of a valley in
Bugamba Sub-county, in the Rwampara Hills of south-western Uganda.

Anthropology and the house


Over the past 130 years practically since the birth of the modern discipline
anthropologists have repeatedly attempted to capture their particular version of
the social, and/or their vision of society, through an image of the house.
Indeed, so frequently has an image of the house been used by such a wide
variety of anthropologists, working in different parts of the world, that one
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might even describe it has having been one of the central organising metaphors
of modern anthropology. This is not particularly surprising perhaps, given
that some concept of a constructed dwelling has been common to all human
groups at least since the domestication of re, around 400,000 years ago
(Birdwell-Pheasant and Lawrence-Zuniga 1999: 1). However, the extent to
which anthropologists have also continually reworked the metaphor, to capture
their own particular version of what the social is, or should be, is also revealing
of the ways in which indigenous concepts of the house can also be reworked to
support various types of analytical models and social theories.
The rst anthropologist to employ an image of the house in this way was the social
evolutionist Louis Henry Morgan, in his Houses and House-Life of the American
Aborigines (1881). According to Morgan, the basic unit of social organisation across
practically all human societies was the lineal descent group, or the gens, which had
prevailed from an antiquity so remote that its origin was lost in the obscurity of far
distant ages (1881: 2), and which remained present, in some form, across each of
mankinds various evolutionary stages (of savagery, barbarism and civilisation). For
Morgan, what gave the gens its unique character, and helped to explain its remarkable
persistence, was its peculiar house-like qualities, in particular the fact that in each of its
various evolutionary manifestations, it had involved some form of communism in
living (see especially 1881: 6378). In its earliest form, this communalism had been
driven by a need to undertake a union of effort to procure subsistence, which was
the vital and commanding concern of life (1881: 63), yet it was equally important in
later evolutionary stages as well, in which it instead became manifest as a law of
hospitality. Thus, for Morgan, key principles of social organisation were best captured
through an image of the house and as his extensive ethnographic survey of North and
South American Native American groups went on to show, these were often reected
in elements of indigenous architecture as well.
Even as the discipline began to move away from the kind of social evolutionary
models that Morgans work represented, his attempt to capture social morphology
through a metaphor of the house remained highly inuential. For example, in
19045, Marcel Mauss and Henri Beuchat (1979 [1906]) similarly attempted to
capture the central features of Innuit social organisation which they argued is also
marked by a certain collectivist ethos through reference to an image of domestic
architecture. According to Mauss and Beuchat, the Innuits essential collectivism
was particularly marked in the common protype that informed the construction of
the groups winter houses (a prototype that they argued was always present, even
though the details of individual constructions often varied widely, as a result of a
whole host of climatic, ecological, and other, factors). In 1909, Arnold van Gennep
similarly introduced his famous structuralist study of rites de passages by again invoking the metaphor of a house. As he put it: a society is similar to a house divided into
rooms and corridors. The more the society resembles ours in its form of civilisation,
the more open are its doors of communication. In a semicivilised society, on the other
hand, sections are carefully isolated, and passage from one to another must be made
through formalities and ceremonies (1960 [1909]: 26). The main aim of van Genneps
book, then, was to examine these formalities and ceremonies across different
cultural groups, and to explore the various rites of separation, periods of liminality
and rites of aggregation, that they entailed. Later, in 1913, Bronislaw Malinowski
offered a denition of the family among Australian aboriginals that made particular
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reference to the social aspects of kinship. By this he meant the everyday functions
corresponding to treatment, behaviour, feeding and so forth, which characterise the
intimate, or home aspect of the kinship relation (1963 [1913]: 203; emphasis mine).
In a sense, Malinowskis work also set the tone for much of the structural-functionalist writings that were to follow, writings that frequently understood the basic unit
of social and economic life to be the household (e.g. Goody 1958).
However, the association between models of social organisation and houses
reached its zenith in the structuralist theory of Claude Lvi-Strauss. In a series of
lectures given at the College de France between 1976 and 1981, Lvi-Strauss developed
an extensive comparative ethnographic survey of different forms of social organisation,
classied by type. His survey found that, in addition to elementary and complex
types of social organisation, a third, or intermediary, type of society could be identied, which combined elements of the other two. In effect a hybrid, transitional form
between kin-based and class-based social orders (Carsten and Hugh-Jones 1995: 10),
these societies were characterised by the predominance of distinct houses: social structures that typically transmitted rights and honours via both men and women (they also
made extensive use of ctive kin ties, forged through various forms of alliance),
yet that also protected a clearly dened domain of their own wealth and
privileges (cf. Fox 2006: 7). These societies were best classied as socits maison
(house-based societies). In these ways, therefore, Lvi-Strauss attempted to capture
not just some or other feature of social organisation through an image of the house
(as previous anthropologists had done), so much as an entire classicatory type of
society. He also extended the metaphor in at least one other way, in that his notion
of the house referred less to any notion of house as physical construction, so much
as to a concept of the noble house of medieval Europe (itself a form of historically
specic social classication in its own right, of course).
Other structuralist thinkers extended the metaphor in other ways besides. Most
notably, Pierre Bourdieus famous essay on The Kabyle House or the World Reversed
(rst published in 1970), examined how not only the social order, but also the entire
Kabyle cosmos which was marked by a series of oppositions between male/female,
day/night, re/water, etc. was reected in the groups domestic architecture. In this
way, the house could be interpreted as a microcosm organized by the same
oppositions and the same homologies which order the whole universe, [and] stands
in a relation of homology with the rest of the universe (1979 [1970]: 143). Once
constructed according to these oppositions, the house then reected these back onto
the bodies of its occupants, shaping practice accordingly. In consequence, men and
women both perceived and experienced the house differently, and undertook
different activities within it, while both genders engaged with it differently during the
daytime and the night time, during the summer and the winter, etc. Later, Bourdieu
extrapolated from his Kabyle example to argue that in these ways, the house may even
be seen as the principle locus for the objectication of generative schemes (1977: 89),
while his later work on Distinction elaborated these ideas even further, in its
examination of the intrinsic links between the domestic arena and embodied practices
of habitus, class and taste (cf. Daniels 2010: 201, n. 6).
Even after anthropologists interest in structuralist approaches had begun to
wane (during the 1980s), Bourdieus notion of concepts and symbols being written
onto or embedded within houses, and his concomitant idea that these were then
reected back onto human bodies through their engagements with these buildings,
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remained inuential. On the one hand, these ideas informed a raft of emergent
ethnographic studies on the symbolism of non-Western house design, especially in
South-East Asia (Waterson 1990: xvxix). The guiding logic of much of this work,
as described by Schulte Nordholt in an early contribution on the Atoni of Timor,
was that houses are like a book in which the order of [the Atoni] world is recorded.
They are the reection and embodiment of [Atoni] thinking (1971: 432). Indeed, so
inuential did this work become that its impact was eventually felt even beyond
anthropology itself. In particular, architectural scholars researching questions of
vernacular architecture drew inspiration from the ways in which this ethnographic
literature focus[ed] attention on the power of built forms to carry meaning and evoke
sentiment (Rapoport, cited in Birdwell-Pheasant and Lawrence-Zuniga 1999: 4; see
also Asquith and Vellinga 2006). On the other hand, Bourdieus formulations were also
taken up, and extended, by a growing number of ethnographic studies (from the late
1980s onwards) that looked at questions of consumption, identity and houses within
various late-capitalist settings. As described by Miller, a key concern for this work
was to explore the do-it-yourself activity by which people transform [] their
home interiors as a mode of self-expression. In this way, the home came to be
seen less as a backdrop or reservoir of an almost unconscious habitus constructed
out of order and relations. Instead, partly in the light of new gender studies that
emphasised the agency of women (and subsequently also gays) in the home, it
became a mode of expression, a means by which people constructed themselves
and their ideologies (Miller 2001b: 10)1 as well as a key site in which those same
identities become embodied through practice.2
Therefore, anthropologists informed by different theoretical traditions have
variously attempted to capture aspects of kin relations, other features of social
organisation, the classication of an entire class of societies, indigenous conceptual
and symbolic schemes, and/or modes of experience, through reference to a metaphor
of the house. Indeed, quite so varied has this work been that it might be tempting to
conclude that nothing much unites it at all, beyond the image of the house itself.
Nevertheless, closer examination reveals that there are in fact a number common
features running throughout this vast literature, each of which is revealing of the ways
in which anthropology as a whole has constructed both the social and the place of the
house within this. Firstly, it is noteworthy that each of the above theorists attempts to
identify some or other feature (or group of features) that unifies the social: be it an
aspect of social organisation, a classicatory or symbolic scheme, or a mode of
experience. As a result, each invokes the house as itself something that aggregates, or
coheres, human organisation, practice, experience, or whatever, or in other words as
itself a unifying/unied structure. Secondly, all of the above theorists present an
ultimately anthropocentric view of the world, in that they place analytical primacy
upon human organisation, classication and/or practice, and represent the house as
only a sign of (or a sign for) these things. In other words, they all, in their own ways,

Among other things, this move also led to a shift away from the examination of only built structures,
towards a greater emphasis on other features as well, including: decorative schemes, xtures and
ttings, and household objects.
2
The best introduction to the now sizeable ethnographic literature on consumption, identity and houses
is Pink (2004).
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construct the social as a primarily human domain, and represent the house as only the
site onto which this is projected, or the setting in which it takes place. Certainly, the
various writers under discussion here do construct the relationship between the
human-social and the house-sign in different ways. For example, following Charles
Sanders Peirces famous distinction between different types of sign relations, we might
note that Morgan sees the relationship as more iconic (in that for him, the gens and the
house primarily resemble each other), whilst Malinowski presents it in more indexical
terms (in that elements of kinship are caused by house-life). Meanwhile, most writers
from Bourdieu onwards, at least, have emphasised the relations more symbolic
aspects (in that they take connections between the human-social and the house-sign
to be largely conventional in nature). In addition, almost all theorists, again from
Bourdieu onwards, are sensitive to the ways in which the house-signs may reect back
on, or otherwise shape, human practice as well (what Bourdieu himself calls double
structuration). Nevertheless, in all instances, the very fact of representing the relationship between the human and the house as that of referent to sign necessarily generates a
certain semantic distance between them, and thereby represents the two elements as
ultimately external to each other.3 Thirdly, and as one consequence of the above,
previous anthropological writings on the house have tended to represent agency as
residing primarily, if not exclusively, with humans rather than with houses, or aspects
of houses, themselves. In other words, precisely because the social is a primarily human
domain, it is only humans who are seen as initiating causal sequences of a particular
type (to borrow Alfred Gells phrase, 1998: 16), while houses, as only signs of the
social, are consequently also reduced to mere products, or patients, of those sequences
(again Gells term, 1998: 213).
One group of anthropologists that has tried to move beyond these various
interpretative frames is Daniel Millers research group at University College London
(UCL), whose work culminated in the collection Home Possessions (Miller 2001a).
Basing their arguments on their ethnographic studies in Europe, East Asia and Canada,
one of the key insights of this UCL group was to show that houses dont always provide coherence to social forms, but may also unsettle them in a variety of ways (and that
this is particularly marked in those dwellings whose occupants are, or have been
recently, in some state of mobility; see especially the chapters by Garvey (2001),
Marcoux (2001) and Petridou (2001)). Miller and his colleagues also challenged any
straightforward reading of the semiotics of houses, by instead foregrounding problems
of contradiction and dissonance in the relationship between people and their homes
(Miller 2001b: 10). This was best demonstrated in Alison Clarkes study of the boom
in Do-It Yourself (DIY) home improvement culture in late 1980s Britain, which
elevated houses as a kind of ultimate symbol for self-expression. Clarke found that in
practice, many home DIY projects also became burdensome, in that once begun, they
often came to represent, and to objectify, a kind of ideal self that people felt they then
had to live up to, give time to, show off to (Clarke 2001: 42). In addition, practically all
of the actual DIY projects Clarke examined remained in some way or another
incomplete, as a result of which each house in fact (as Miller puts it) carried the burden
of the discrepancies between its actual state at a given time and a wide range of
3

Interestingly, the essay on the Kabyle house continued to be widely drawn upon within anthropology,
even after Bourdieu had distanced himself from it (he later described it as the last work I wrote as a
blissful structuralist, 1990: 9). For the on-going inuence of the essay in anthropology, see also Miller
(2001b: 5).
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aspirational ideal homes that are generated out of much wider ideals that a household
might have for it (2001b: 7).4 Finally, and most signicantly, Miller himself also
recognised that from this, occupants do sometimes perceive their houses, and their
domestic materialities, as possessing a degree of agency. In some cases, this process
may be similar to Gells notion of distributed personhood, in that houses come to be
seen as standing in for that is reecting the prior intentionality of, even the on-going
presence of others (especially their designers, builders, previous occupants, etc.;
Miller 2001c: 120; cf. Birdwell-Pheasant and Lawrence-Zuniga 1999: 8). Yet in other
cases, it may also result in people objectifying houses as agents in their own right. For
Miller, the quintessential example of the latter is the belief in ghosts, which, following
its projection of metaphysical beings (that may or may not relate to actual people)
into specic houses, later perceives those same beings to be operating as agents in
and of themselves. In this way, the ghosts of haunted London houses may even be
thought of as the original estate agents, and akin to the fetishes described
elsewhere in the anthropological literature (which are also attributed with power
and agency of their own; Miller 2001c: 119).
However, I would argue that Latours work, and ANT in general, offers ways in
which we might take some of these insights even further still. Because one of the key
aims of the actor-network approach is precisely to show how an analytical focus on
non-human actants not only unsettles our images of the social, but instead forces
us to dissagregate them entirely. In so doing, it also draws attention to the variety of
ways in which non-human actants may be imminent to the social (and may therefore
produce not only contradiction and dissonance, but any number of other social effects
as well).5 Finally, and as an extension of the above, the ANT approach also further
extends our understanding of the potential agency of these non-human elements.

House/machine
Unfortunately, Bruno Latour has never offered a sustained thesis on the house per se.
Nevertheless, he has provided enough threads of discussion about given elements, or
features, of houses, for us to construct, with some degree of accuracy, the general
contours of what a specically Latourian approach to the study of houses might look
like. Of particular use here is one of Latours most inuential early articles outlining
the ANT approach, entitled Mixing humans and nonhumans together: the sociology
of a door-closer, which he published under the pseudonym Jim Johnson in 1988. As

Ingold makes a similar point: makers have to work in a world that does not keep still until the job is
completed, and with materials that have properties of their own and are not necessarily predisposed to
fall into the shapes required of them, let alone to stay in them indenitely (2011: 212).
5
For Miller, all social relations (whether between only humans, or between humans and material
objects) are dialectical in nature, and thus always produce at least some form of objectication,
implying contradiction and dissonance. Thus, contradiction is intrinsic to culture (and this needs
always to be in some way moderated, see especially Miller 2010). Against this, ANT doesnt make
any assumptions in advance about the precise qualities of relationships between actants but instead
tries to capture these through empirical analysis and it therefore allows for relations to produce a
much wider (indeed, potentially limitless) range of social effects. For Millers own reections on the
difference between his dialectical theory and Latours approach, see Miller (2005: 1112).
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the title suggests, this essay which was later expanded (in 1992) offers an extended
discussion of the social and moral effects of a groom (the Fr-english word for a
hydraulic door-closer). However, in developing its argument, the article also discusses
a number of technologies that relate to the door-closer, and which may be associated
with houses. These related technologies include (other types of) hinges, and locks,
as well as doors themselves, windows and walls (see especially Latour 2008 [1992]:
1536) and the article also goes on to discuss plugs, and computers, and a type of
cooker (2008 [1992]: 1616; see also Latour 1991). In these ways, this article therefore
provides a good insight into how Latour might encourage us to think about other
features of houses as well and, by extension, about houses in general. In more general
terms, Latours wider discussions on architects, architecture/s and design all of
which are particularly elaborated in Paris: Invisible City (with photographer Emilie
Hermant, in 1998), and his later A cautious Prometheus? (an article originally
prepared for the UKs Design History Society, in 2008) provide further ideas about
how we might proceed here.
Perhaps the rst point to make is that the key move of the ANT approach is to
entirely disaggregate any image of the social as a unied entity. Latour makes this point
most explicitly in his discussion of groups which are the rst source of uncertainty
in his Reassembling the Social (2005) where he argues that any image of a unied
group necessarily generates four unavoidable problems: (1) it requires that there are
individuals (spokespersons) who speak for the entire group; (2) it implies that there
must be other groups that are different from it (i.e. it necessarily invokes anti-groups);
(3) it requires points of difference between the group and these anti-groups to be specied (as Latour puts it, it de-nes the group); and (4) it tends to result in
spokespersons (that is respondents) own denitions being also reproduced as analytical categories, both by social scientists and by other outside observers (2005: 304). In
order to avoid these problems, ANT begins instead from an explicitly relativist position. In other words, it starts from the position of an individual actor, and denes the
analysts task as one of simply tracing out, and describing, the multiple, in many cases
myriad, connections, both strong and weak, enduring and ephemeral, and of different spatial and temporal scales, in which that actor is located (i.e. the actor-network/s).
The analyst should refrain from making any a priori assumptions about how those
networks might be shaped by wider realities (or even that any such contexts exist).
In this way, the actor-network approach tends to produce an image of the social that
is at once more heterogeneous, and complex, yet also more unstable in short
something that is messier (cf. Law 2004) than many previous anthropological, or
sociological, models might allow. (As Latour himself puts it, ANT simply doesnt take
as its job to stabilize the social on behalf of the people it studies; such a duty is to be left
entirely to the actors themselves; 2005: 301).
In relation to my current discussion, all of this might also suggest that there is no
need for us to continue to invoke a category of the house, either. In other words, if we
extend Latours withering attack on the category the group, to anthropologists
representations of the house as well and certainly, all of the criticisms he makes of
the group could be equally applied to the ways in which a category of the house has
been used in the anthropological literature then we might conclude that a Latourian
position rejects outright any notion of the house as well. Thus, rather than seeking to
identify spokespeople who speak on behalf of houses, identifying ways to distinguish
one house from another, and so on, the task of the analyst may be reoriented towards
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examining the ways in which different actors are located within different networks,
which connect to domestic relations and spaces in different ways. The expectation here
is that any such analysis will always reveal multiple, and extended, actor-networks
(an expectation that holds for the analysis of any social situation) and in consequence,
the image of a unied/holistic house is not only rendered inappropriate, but is
thoroughly disaggregated (in a move similar to that which anthropologists have
previously made in relation to their erstwhile privileged category of the village; e.g.
Dumont and Pocock 1957).
Secondly, a Latourian approach emphasises both that the actors connected
together within these networks invariably include both humans and non-humans
(both of which Latour terms actants) as a result of which all actor-networks are
by denition socio-technical, or hybrid, in nature and that these actants may be
connected in any number of ways. While these insights are fundamental for all ANT,
they are in fact particularly marked in Latours discussions of those networks which
include elements of domestic structures (or indeed, any built structures, for that matter)
a reection of the fact that the design of all such structures necessarily involves a large
number of delegations whereby human actions, or sets of actions, are intentionally
substituted for architectural features that carry out those same actions on the humans
behalf. This point emerges most forcefully in Latours discussion of the groom, in
which he challenges his imagined reader to draw two columns: in the right-hand
column, list the work people would have to do if they had no door; in the left-hand
column write down the gentle pushing (or pulling) they have to do to fulll the same
tasks. Compare the two columns: the enormous effort on the right is balanced by the
small one on the left, and this is all thanks to hinges (2008 [1992]: 154). Moreover, it is
not just human actions (i.e. opening and closing the door) that are delegated to doors
and hinges in this way. So too human tasks, even roles, may be substituted for these same
technologies, for example the tasks and roles of a gatekeeper, or a janitor, or a concierge,
or a turnkey, or a jailer (2008 [1992]: 1556). The key point is that, in these ways, for
Latour non-human elements may be implicated in a potentially limitless range of social
effects. In other words, material forms such as domestic structures, or their related materialities, are in no way external to the social, but are instead an integral part of it. As such,
they have the potential to shape the social in any number of ways (albeit within certain
spatial, temporal and/or other limits).
Thirdly, if non-human actants are an integral element of the social, then they must
also, by denition, have a degree of agency within them. Certainly, in some instances
within actor-network studies, the nature of this agency appears quite similar to that
which Gell describes, in that it involves an essentially cognitive process whereby
human agency usually that of a designer becomes in some sense read into a
non-human element (for example, people may well come to perceive the operation of
a human agent behind the actions of a delegated object). In others, it resembles more
what Miller describes i.e. another process whereby people objectify non-human
actants as possessing a degree of agency of their own (as in Latours discussion of the
signmakers perception that The Groom Is On Strike; 2008 [1992]: 1667). However,
beyond this, Latour is also interested in emphasising, and exploring, the ways in which
human agency may also be altered through being transferred to non-human actants.
For example, staying with his discussion of the groom, Latour shows how the basic
human practice of closing doors, when delegated to the hydraulic door-closer, is made
(among other things): more efcient (given that the groom requires no energy of its
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own to carry out the action), more standardised, (because unlike humans, the groom
will close the door in exactly the same way every time), and more reliable (in that unlike
a human porter, the groom will never get called away to other duties, it will never
actually go on strike, and so on). Crucially, though, Latour also nds that following
the delegation of human practices, tasks and roles to non-human elements, the latter
may also go on to exert a degree of agency in their own right. In other words, they
may also initiate causal chains of a particular type that are entirely independent of
any human perception or intentionality. These same causal chains may then shape
further human practice again in ways unforeseen in advance (in a process of prescription; 2008 [1992]: 157). Following its creation as a simple automatic door-closer, the
groom goes on to generate entirely new forms of human behaviour of its own, such as
the skilled users ability to slide quickly behind the door while it is closing (without
being simultaneously hit by it), or the tradespersons instinct to stick out a foot in order
to arrest the grooms operation (2008 [1992]: 159). Certainly, these prescriptions may
only operate over a pre-dened, and relatively limited, spatial range (i.e. the space in
which the door opens and closes), but they are no less effective a form of agency for
that. In all of these ways, then, Latour allows for agency to be distributed throughout
a network, such that it may reside with people themselves; it may be projected onto, or
transferred over to, non-human actants; or it may reside with material objects alone. It
seems to me that the main advantage of this orientation is that it allows for much
more exible forms of analysis than any that assume that either people alone, or
relationships, or objects alone are the driving force behind networks.6 This advantage
may be particularly useful for analysing certain sorts of social situations, not least those
characterised by certain forms of social change.

The house of time


So what insights might be yielded by the application of this actor-network-oriented
approach to the ethnography of houses? My own ethnography is based on the study
of one domestic residence/series of dwellings in south-western Uganda. The residence
is known locally as eka ya Bwire.7 The phrase means, literally, the house of time,
although it is actually a reference to the person of Onasmus Bwire, who commissioned
the residences oldest remaining dwelling (Dwelling 1, in Figure 1), sometime in the

The rst of these three positions would characterise much of the previous anthropological writings on
houses described above. Meanwhile, Millers dialectical theory sees agency as residing only within relations between people and things (the dialectical position privileges, not the agency of the person,
and not the agency of the thing, but privileges process and relationships and transformations and ows
Just to talk of the agency of things is probably on the whole not that useful. Things dont operate as
entities in themselves anymore than people do, in fact rather less, I should think. This is not where
agency lies (Miller, in Borgerson 2009: 164; see also Miller 2005: 1115). The last of the three positions
leads, of course, to one of the greatest anthropological heresies of all: material determinism.
7
My discussion here is based on a larger project, which is developing a wider biography of eka ya Bwire.
The project explores the multiple histories, relations and materialities that are entangled in and through
this residence, and what these reveal about the state and development in Uganda. For reasons of
space, the ethnography presented in this article is necessarily selective from the larger project, and is
offered for illustrative purposes only.
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mid-1950s. Even today, two of Bwires sons, and their respective families, continue to
occupy the residence although not Dwelling 1 and various other of Bwires
surviving patrilineal kin, afnes, and other associates, live in surrounding properties
(the sons current dwellings are marked as Dwellings 2 and 3 in Figure 1). Indeed, so
established have Bwires kin become throughout this locale, that the mans former
eka is today commonly taken to be the nucleus of a wider ekika a term that has both
spatial and relational connotations, and that, in everyday use, in fact bears a striking
resemblance to Morgans category of the gens (although space does not allow me to
develop the argument here, the similarities include patterns of co-residence, rules of
inheritance, expectations of hospitality, etc.). For this reason, it is in fact quite tempting
for the analyst, following the respondents (spokespersons) own view, to interpret
the eka as indeed an integral part of a larger, and coherent, social structure (and
certainly, previous ethnographers of the region have tended to discuss the ekika at
length, usually glossing the category as something like a sub-lineage).
The residence, and its various physical structures, can also be interpreted as
reecting a certain set of symbolic logics. For example, and as I have discussed elsewhere at length (Vokes 2007), the very fact that this ekas main structures are all sited
in the middle part of the hill, orushozi (i.e. they are all equidistant from the rangeland
that runs along the tops of the hills, and the papyrus swamp that covers the valley
oor), is itself meaningful in terms of an indigenous and ancient cultural cosmology of the hill. Similar types of symbolic schemes can be also read into aspects of
the residence itself. For example, the spaces both surrounding and within the ekas
various dwellings are to some degree marked by concepts of public/private,
male/female and elder/child, and these schemes do also shape practice in a number
of ways. To give some simple examples, a visitor approaching the property would
expect to remain in one of the residences more public spaces (either in the courtyard
Nd

ei

ja
swamp

Kitchen

Dwelling 2
Latrine 2

Bu
m
ga

Plantation

ba

Kitchen
to hill top

Dwelling 3
Dwelling 1

Latrine 1
0 metres 25

Figure 1 Sketch map of Eka ya Bwire (Source: Author)


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RICHARD VOKES

in front of a dwelling, the eirembo, or in its sitting room), throughout the duration
of his/her stay. A senior male will never at least under normal circumstances enter
a dwellings kitchen (eiteekyero), or touch anything on its drying rack (akatandaaro;
a structure just outside the kitchen, on which utensils are placed to dry after washing,
or food is put to ripen), or work in its millet elds (millet = oburo, the cultivation of
which is an exclusively female affair), and so on. Furthermore, all of the schemes can
also be interrogated in terms of the ways that they shape experience as well.
However, Latours challenge is for us to move beyond these sorts of images alone,
by additionally disaggregating what we might even mean by the house. In fact, this
move turns out to be particularly easy in relation to the present case, given that the
oldest surviving dwelling in eka ya Bwire (i.e. Dwelling 1) is not the rst, but in fact
the fourth, domestic structure to have been built on the same spot (and the two
additional dwellings Dwellings 2 and 3 have since been added to the larger residence
as well, see Figure 1). Just a brief examination of the history of Dwelling 1 also reveals
that even this structure has never been a unied building at all, but different parts of it
were built at different times, and all of its rooms and spaces have been reworked over
time (in some cases on multiple occasions). The overall residence has also in the past
included a number of other structures that today no longer exist: most notably a
former cattle shed and former sleeping quarters. An exploration of these former
structures turns out to be vital for understanding social realities in the present, given
that each of them has left traces in the landscape, and each continues to shape both
memory and on-going social practices and bonds. However, in the remainder of this
article, I wish to concentrate on the disaggregation of one particular feature of eka
ya Bwire, as a means for illustrating some of the other aspects of Latours actornetwork approach. Specically and it seems only in keeping with the spirit of
Latours work and ANT in general I will focus on the history of this residences
toilet facilities.8
The script here in fact begins in the very earliest years of British colonial
penetration of this region, in the early 1900s, when the then nascent district administration, in an attempt to end a wave of epidemics that had then recently impacted the
region, passed a series of regulations and ordinances to the effect that every residence
in the area must dig its own pit latrine (long drop) of at least 15 feet in depth, and sited
approximately 30 yards from the outside wall of the nearest dwelling, and built with
some sort of permanent covering. These regulations versions of which were doubtless
repeated by district administrations across the colony were later codied at the
national level in the Public Health Act of 1935. From the outset, failure to comply with
the new directives could theoretically result in imprisonment. Yet before about 1920,
local administrations lacked the capacity either to adequately publicise the new rules,
or to enforce them, and as a result, very few latrines were actually constructed.
However, following the end of the First World War, county (saza) chiefs were able
to recruit signicant numbers of former veterans, as they returned from that conict.
On the one hand, these veterans had a new-found sense of the dangers of unsanitary
8

Taking its lead from Latours studies of grooms, doors, locks, walls etc., much of the Science and
Technology Studies (STS) literature on domestic buildings has problematised seemingly mundane
features of these structures. Rather than concentrating on only those spaces that actors themselves
regard as especially meaningful (e.g. sitting rooms, bedrooms, etc.), these studies have also examined
the sociology of toilets, bathrooms, laundry facilities, etc. The best introduction to this larger literature
is Shove (2003).
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conditions, having experienced several signicant epidemics over the course of that
campaign. On the other, these same individuals had grown accustomed to receiving
cash wages for their work in the forces, and were thus keen to engage in further monied
employment. As a result, it proved relatively easy for local administrations to engage
large numbers of these former servicemen, gangs of whom for several years moved
around the countryside, both assisting with the construction of new latrines, and
disciplining those home owners who continued not to comply. Later, and especially
following the passing of the 1935 Act, a rst generation of newly-trained health
inspectors took over the veterans duties. As part of a wide-range of duties and powers
in relation to domestic residences, health inspectors had the authority both to destroy
inadequate latrines (and/or order their rebuilding) and to order the arrest of anyone
whose toilet was found to be in such a state, or so situated, as to be dangerous to health,
or liable to favour the spread of infectious disease (Morris and Read 1966: 389). As a
result, by about the early 1940s, compliance with the 1935 Act was near-universal.
Reecting this wider history, then, the rst latrine to be constructed in eka ya Bwire
was built in the late 1920s, although was later vastly improved some time around the late
1930s, and has since been rebuilt several times (although always on the same site; see
latrine 1, in Figure 1). A second, much larger, latrine was also added to the dwelling in
the mid-1990s (latrine 2).
The rst point to be made here is that in this history of latrines we can
already identify all of the elements of the classic script for an actor-network analysis
(as proposed, in particular, by Michel Callon (1986), in his famous study of St Brieuc
shermen). In other words, in the colonial governments initial identication of
infectious disease as a problem, and (a specic type of) latrine as the solution to this,
we can discern a phase of what Callon would call problematisation. Later, following
a period of non-activity, the administrations recruitment of various other actors to
its cause (veterans, health inspectors), some of whom were motivated by concerns quite
different to those of the administration itself (waged labour, professional advancement),
conforms to the phases of interessement and enrolment. Finally, as large numbers of
latrines do actually get built, and dissenters do get punished, we witness the networks
ultimate mobilisation/inscription. However, more relevant to my argument here are the
ways in which this actor-network, once it is mobilised, also reworks the domestic
dwelling in a number of different ways. Firstly, and most obviously, it reorganises
the residences built environment, by introducing an entirely new structure, of
prescribed location and dimensions, as a permanent store for human waste. Moreover,
from the time the rst latrines were constructed onwards, these structures were
understood to have brought the agency of their designer (in this case the colonial
administration) into the home. Even today, most people continue to explain the
existence of latrines with reference to the colonial governments ideas about hygiene,
and in relation to that administrations initial enforcement of compliance (even though
this began almost a century ago now) as a result of which this bygone administration
has something of an on-going presence in the lives of the living.
More signicant, though, are the ways in which this same actor-network, once it is
mobilised, also reorders pre-existing symbolic schemes relating to the residence. Of
particular importance and to continue with the two examples that I have already
introduced are the ways in which it disrupts both the cultural cosmology of the hill,
and notions of private and public space. In terms of the former, the latrine essentially
transfers a polluting element, human waste, out of the correct domain for such a thing
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(i.e. the valley oor/swamp), into the domain of quotidian human activity
(i.e. the
middle part of the hill) and it is noteworthy here that precisely because the valley
oor/swamp is cast as a zone of pollution, this is generally where people used to
defecate in the period before latrines existed. In term of the latter, latrines have
always occupied a somewhat ambiguous position, given that they are structures
dedicated to private bodily acts, of course, yet they are also given the prescriptions
on how they should be sited invariably located in markedly public places (either in
the eirembo itself, or in the even more public plantation, orutookye, beyond). For both
of these reasons, then, latrine buildings do generate problems of contradiction and
dissonance, in a number of ways. On the one hand, the fact that it is a colonial technology, and that it is symbolically polluting, lend the latrine a kind of potency, as a result
of which it is cast as by far the most likely place within the residence in which one is
likely to fall victim to witchcraft (oburogo), or to encounter a nightdancer
(mukyekyezi), or to suffer some other misfortune besides and this shapes practice
in a number of ways. On the other hand, the confusion of private and public that
latrines create also means that, among other things, it is never entirely clear exactly
who is entitled to use a given toilet, beyond the household head himself (nyineka).
In most instances, at least the mans wife/wives and children might also expect to use
it (although this is by no means always the case). However, beyond that, a good deal
of negotiation is involved in establishing precisely which friends (banywani),
neighbours (bataahi), visitors (bataayaayi), etc. may do likewise. Furthermore, these
disruptions may also result in latrines becoming objectied as agents not least
through their becoming perceived as haunted. In consequence, one is also more likely
to encounter a spirit of the dead (emandwa) in the toilet than in any other part of a
domestic residence (one result of which is that people will often avoid using the
latrine after dark).
In addition though, this actor-network also involves human agency becoming
transferred onto non-human objects, through a process of delegation of exactly the
sort that Latour describes. If we were to follow Latours prescription to draw two
columns (above), it would highlight that a signicant number of practices, tasks
and roles formerly performed by humans have now been delegated to the latrine. To
take just a few examples, it was formerly the case that people were expected to walk
down to the swamp in order to defecate (which in almost all cases involved a journey
of more than 30 yards). A number of my older respondents remember being given
specic instructions to this effect as children (in the period before their own dwellings
had pit latrines), and being punished when they failed to comply. By the same token,
children were formerly also tasked, as part of their broader duties for keeping agricultural gardens tidy, with removing any human faeces that for whatever reason had
been deposited there instead (at least one of my respondents recalls this job as being
the most unpleasant household chore that she has ever had to do). Meanwhile, it was
also a formerly common practice for all big men from the mugabe (king) of Nkore
down to employ dedicated water carriers (bahuko bakinabiro) within their domestic
retinues, whose role included the purication of his/her employer (both literally and
ritually) after they had defecated.9 (To complicate matters further, in relation to eka ya
Bwire specically, there was also an intermediary phase between going in the
9

The water carrier role is discussed in the rst ethnography of this region, John Roscoes The
Banyankole (1923: 42).
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swamp and the construction of the rst pit latrine during which people instead used
chamber pots. These generated a range of additional practices and tasks).
In addition, the pit latrine does also exert a degree of agency in its own right here,
and does initiate causal chains of a particular type, which then further shape human
practice. For example, latrines themselves generate entirely new symbolic schemes.
Precisely because of the part played by colonial authorities in stabilising the initial
actor-network here, today the quality of a dwellings latrine has become a key marker
of its owners political standing. This is particularly evident with the latrine of Bwires
eldest son, Grace who is also the long-standing LCIII Chairman of Bugamba
Sub-county which, more than any other structure in his residence signals both his
overall status and his association with the mechanisms of the developmental state.
Thus, although Graces dwelling (Dwelling 2) is neither the largest nor the grandest
in Bugamba, his latrine (Latrine 2) certainly is the biggest and the best: in addition
to having two chambers (one accessed via an internal corridor), it is built of the
highest-quality materials, including cement.10 It also includes a number of additional
technologies, not found in any other toilet around here, such as a certain type of
chimney, and even a device that using a system of pulleys and operated by a foot
peddle delivers running water for washing ones hands (visible in the bottom right
of Plate 1). In these ways, the toilet has become a means to communicate ones
position to the world (and it is difcult to imagine that humans would have chosen
precisely this structure for that purpose, if it was up to them alone). The shape and
layout of all pit latrines also generates an entirely new set of bodily techniques for
the very act of defecating (techniques of entry, squatting, washing, etc.). All of these
techniques must be mastered by anyone intending to use the latrine especially if
they wish to do so without tripping up, or pulling a muscle, or soaking their trousers
or falling victim to any other mishap. It is noteworthy that people frequently reect
on these techniques, especially in everyday conversations usually amusing which
refer to others who, for one reason of another, havent yet mastered (or for some
reason cant master) these techniques. A particular butt of this humour are those
children who have grown up in Kampala, and who have only ever used water closets
(both at home and at school), as a result of which they struggle with pit latrines when
visiting relatives in Bugamba. Alternatively, these anecdotes may commonly refer to
dignitaries who, as a result of eating too much meat (it is said), have now grown
too fat to comfortably squat in a latrine, or to elderly folk who are also no longer
agile enough to master them. Beyond this, we might also note that the insects that
so frequently take up residence in latrine walls constrain human actions in their
own ways again. In particular, a particular wasp that tends to nest in toilet walls often
forces people to use the latrine only during the middle part of the day (when the
wasp itself is least active).
In all of these instances, the prescriptions of the latrine, like those of Latours
hydraulic door-stopper, only operate over a pre-dened, and relatively limited, spatial
range (i.e. within the structure of the latrine itself). However, as a nal move here, it
may be possible to extend Latour, by identifying additional causal chains in which
the agency of the latrine can extend over a much wider territory besides. For example,
in a residence neighbouring eka ya Bwire, the rooms within one dwelling were
10

A material that even in the wealthiest households is usually reserved for only the oors of a main
dwelling.

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RICHARD VOKES

Plate 1 Photograph of Latrine 2 (Source: Author)


signicantly rearranged following the construction of a new pit latrine, in order to
ensure that the household heads main bedroom was as close to that toilet as possible
(presumably in order to make it easier to reach during the night). This rearranging of
rooms had a most peculiar effect on the overall layout of rooms inside that particular
dwelling. Specically, it resulted in the buildings main public space, its sitting-room,
becoming relocated to an awkward room at the back of the dwelling (which had
previously been a bedroom).11 As there is no obvious pathway from the main entrance
to the compound to this new sitting-room, new visitors to the dwelling not only
struggle to nd it, but often inadvertently venture through more private parts of the
house in their efforts to locate it. Meanwhile, other types of territorially extended
causal chains begin when a given latrine (as generally happens after a couple of decades
or so of use) becomes full. In this instance, the smell of the toilet can easily overtake an
entire residence, at which point those living there have the option either to seal it off,
and to build a new one in which case a further decision is required as to whether
or not to locate the new toilet on the same site as the old one, or to put it up somewhere
else in the compound (the latter of which will inevitably generate new causal chains of
its own) or else to have the original latrine emptied. The decision to empty a latrine
then requires someone to travel to a nearby trading centre, or even to Mbarara Town,
to employ one of the few commercial companies, or NGOs, who carry out this
business in these parts (another node in the latrine network). As part of their work,
these companies and NGOs then deploy a range of additional technologies of their
own, of course, from a shovel and bucket to an industrial suction device known as
the gulper.12 Finally, I have recorded at least one case of a full pit latrine ooding,
and eventually forcing the abandonment of an entire residence. Certainly, this did
occur after a period of prolonged rainfall, and a major mudslide which caused a

11
12

In that instance, the new bedroom was located in the room that had formerly been the sitting-room.
See: http://www.slideshare.net/ircuser/water-for-people22august (accessed 3 May 2013).
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number of major earth movements, of which the broken latrine was but one.
Nevertheless, it is also the case that it was the overowing latrine, specically, that
eventually led to that residence being vacated.

Conclusion
Anthropologys recent engagement with Latours work can be seen as part of the
contemporary disciplines broader material turn, which has witnessed anthropologists thinking about the relationships between humans and material objects in a
variety of new ways (including through theoretical strategies as diverse as
phenomenology, cognitive psychology and Marxist analyses of fetishism; Henare
et al. 2007: 2). For some anthropologists working in this new domain of material
culture studies, Latours work is seen as too radical. For example, Henare et al.
take issue with what they see as Latours new meta-theory whereby the inclusion
of non-human/human hybrids portrays everything as a network of entities that
breach the object/subject divide. Against this, they want to propose a methodology where the things themselves dictate a plurality of ontologies (2007: 7;
emphasis in original). For other anthropologists, Latour is not radical enough. For
example, Tim Ingold argues that Latours focus upon the (heterogenous) assemblages
themselves, and upon the social effects that these produce, may fail to capture the
more vital ows of energy and movement by which these are animated, and become
dynamic, and through which bodies, materials and ideas including those relating to
dwellings become entangled (Ingold calls these ows the meshwork, 2011: 8494).
However, theoretically radical enough or not, I would argue that in its disaggregation
of unied (and unifying) models of the social, in the equal analytical value it places
upon human and non-human actants, and in its exploration of distribution of agency
between humans and non-humans, ANT may at least offer a range of insights for
rethinking certain long-standing ethnographic concerns. My intention in this article
has been to try to demonstrate this, through an examination of the (anthropological)
house unbuilt.

Acknowledgements
I would like to thank the family of the late Onasmus Bwire, and especially Gertrude
Akutunda, for their help with preparing this article. I would also like to thank the
editors of this special edition, David Berliner, Laurent Legrain and Mattijis van de Port,
as well as Terry Austrin, and two anonymous reviewers from Social Anthropology, for
their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts. I would also like to thank
Christine Crothers for preparing Figure 1. Of course, any mistakes or omissions
remain mine alone.
Richard Vokes
Discipline of Anthropology and Development Studies
School of Social Sciences, University of Adelaide
Level 1 Napier Building, North Terrace
Adelaide, South Australia 5005, Australia
richard1617@mac.com
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