Actor-network theory, often abbreviated as ANT, is a distinctive approach to social theory and research which originated in the field of science and technology studies. Although it is best known for its controversial insistence on the agency of nonhumans, ANT is also associated with forceful critiques of conventional and critical sociology.
Developed by two leading French STS scholars, Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, British sociologist John Law, and others, it can more technically be described as a 'material-semiotic' method. This means that it maps relations that are simultaneously material (between things) and 'semiotic' (between concepts). It assumes that many relations are both material and 'semiotic' (for instance the interactions in a bank involve both people and their ideas, and computers. Together these form a single network).
ANT tries to explain how material-semiotic networks come together to act as a whole. In the ANT approach, for instance, a bank is both a network and an actor that hangs together, and for certain purposes acts as a single entity. As a part of this it may look at explicit strategies for relating different elements together into a network so that they form an apparently coherent whole.
ANT scholars also assume, however, that such actor-networks are potentially precarious. Relations need to be repeatedly 'performed' or the network will dissolve. (So, for instance, the bank clerks need to come to work each day, and the computers need to keep on running.) In addition they also assume that networks of relations are not intrinsically coherent, and may indeed contain conflicts (for instance, there may be poor labour relations, or computer software may be incompatible).
Although it is called a "theory" ANT does not usually explain why a network takes the form that it does. It is much more interested in exploring how actor-networks get formed, hold themselves together, or fall apart.
The approach is related to other versions of material-semiotics (and notably the work of philosopher Michel Foucault and feminist technoscience scholar Donna Haraway). It can also be seen as a way of being faithful to the insights of ethnomethodology. There are also obvious links to symbolic interactionist approaches, including the newer forms of grounded theory like situational analysis that seek to frame social circumstances as various forms of relationships associated with situations.
As noted above, ANT assumes that all the elements in a network, human and non-human, can and should be described in the same terms. This is called the principle of generalized symmetry. The rationale for this is that differences between them are generated in the network of relations, and should not be presupposed.
Like other perspectives in social science, ANT draws on a range of different philosophical resources, some of which are relatively esoteric. It talks, for instance, of actants to denote human and non-human actors, and assumes that the actors in a network take the shape that they do by virtue of their relations with one another. It assumes that nothing lies outside the network of relations, and as noted above, suggests that there is no difference in the ability of technology, humans, animals, or other non-humans to act (and that there are only enacted alliances.) It further notes that as soon as an actor engages with an actor-network it too is caught up in the web of relations, and becomes part of the 'entelechy'. Some of these terms are explained below.
ANT is used by scholars in sociology, feminist studies, organizational studies and geography. Broadly speaking, it is a constructivist approach in that it avoids essentialist explanations of events or innovations (for example, explaining a successful theory by saying it is 'true' and the others are 'false'). However, it is distinguished from many other STS and sociological theories (including network theory) in that, as noted above, an actor-network contains not only people, but also material objects, non-humans, and organisations.
Background and context
ANT was first developed at the Centre de Sociologie de L'Innovation (CSI) of the Wikipedia:École nationale supérieure des mines de Paris in the early 1980s by staff (Michel Callon and Bruno Latour) and visitors (including John Law). Initially created in an attempt to understand processes of innovation and knowledge-creation in science and technology, the approach drew on existing work in About STS, on studies of large technological systems (see large technical system), and on a range of French intellectual resources including the semiotics of [[Wikipedia:Algirdas Julien Greimas]|Algirdas Julien Greimas], the writing of philosopher Michel Serres, and the Annales School of history.
In retrospect it is easy to see that ANT reflects many of the preoccupations of French Post-structuralism, and in particular a concern with non-foundational and multiple material-semiotic relations. At the same time, it was much more firmly embedded in English-language academic traditions than most post-structuralist-influenced approaches. Its grounding in (predominantly English) STS was reflected in an intense commitment to the development of theory through qualitative empirical case-studies, and its links with (largely US) work on large technical systems were reflected in its willingness to analyse large scale technological developments in an even-handed manner to include political, organisational, legal, technical and scientific factors.
Many of the characteristic ANT tools (including the notions of translation, generalized symmetry and the 'heterogeneous network'), together with a scientometric tool for mapping innovations in science and technology ('co-word analysis') were initially developed during the 1980s, predominantly in and around the CSI. The 'state of the art' of ANT in the late 1980s is well-described in Latour's 1987 text, Science in Action .
From about 1990 onwards ANT started to become popular as a tool for analysis in a range of fields beyond STS. It was picked up and developed by authors in parts of organisational analysis, informatics, health studies, geography, sociology, anthropology, and economics. Some such adoptions were relatively uncritical, but others were not, and the development of ANT through the 1990s reveals traces of its dialogues with related approaches, including especially feminist STS, geography, and anthropology.
In 2006 ANT is a widespread if controversial range of material-semiotic approaches for the analysis of heterogeneous relations. In part because of its popularity, it is interpreted and used in a wide range of alternative and sometimes incompatible ways. There is no orthodoxy in current ANT, and different authors use the approach in substantially different ways. Some authors talk of 'after-ANT' to refer to 'successor projects' that blend together (for instance) the insights of feminist material-semiotics (including a concern with embodiment and political commitment) with those of ANT.
The concept of translation
Central to ANT is the concept of translation, in which innovators attempt to create a forum, a central network in which all the actors agree that the network is worth building and defending. In his widely debated 1986 study of how marine biologists try to restock the St Brieuc Bay in order to produce more scallops,, Michel Callon has defined 4 moments of translation. These four moments are derived from studying :
What is the problem that needs to be solved? Who are the relevant actors? Delegates need to be identified that will represent groups of actors. So, a union head represents workers or an MP represents his constituency. During problematisation, the primary actor tries to establish itself as an obligatory passage point (OPP) between the other actors and the network, so that it becomes indispensable.
Getting the actors interested and negotiating the terms of their involvement. The primary actor works to convince the other actors that the roles it has defined them are acceptable.
Actors accept the roles that have been defined for them during interessement
4. Mobilisation of allies
Do the delegate actors in the network adequately represent the masses? If so, enrolment becomes active support.
If taken to its logical conclusion, nearly any actor can be considered merely a sum of other, smaller actors. An automobile is an example of a complex system. It contains many electronics|electronic and mechanical components, all of which are essentially hidden from view to the driver, who simply deals with the car as a single object. This effect is known as punctualisation, and is similar to the idea of abstraction in object-oriented programming.
When an actor network breaks down, the punctualisation effect tends to cease as well. In the automobile example above, a non-working engine would cause the driver to become aware of the car as a collection of parts rather than just a vehicle capable of transporting him or her from place to place. This can also occur when elements of a network act contrarily to the network as a whole. In his 'Pandora's Hope' Latour likens depunctualization to the opening of Pandora's box.
In the above examples, 'social order' and 'functioning car' come into being through the successful interactions of their respective actor-networks, and actor-network theory refers these creations as tokens or quasi-objects which are passed between actors within the network.
As the token is increasingly transmitted or passed through the network, it becomes increasingly punctualized and also increasingly reified. When the token is decreasingly transmitted, or when an actor fails to transmit the token (e.g., the oil pump breaks), punctualization and reification are decreased as well.
Actor-Network Theory is useful in the exploration of why technologies, scientific theories, and/or social endeavors succeed or fail as the direct result of changes in their network integrity. In such an analysis, the technology or theory is positioned as the token.
In an early example of ANT entitled 'Aramis: The Love of Technology,' Latour described the crumbling of a network as the reason for failure of a particular technology (point-to-point public transport). Most often used to describe the demise of a quasi-object, ANT can also be used to examine how some quasi-objects (e.g. evolution, gravity, social norms) have been extremely successful due to their robust networks.
The Actor-Network Theory is particularly useful when applied to environmental issues because it demolishes the traditional false binaries constructed between the character and power of human and nonhuman actors. Paul Robbins’ stresses the importance of the methodology because, “it directs attention away from the individual people, species, and habitats and toward their interrelationship.” In terms of invasive species, the Actor Network Theory draws attention to the power-laiden social structures that dictates the management and control of such species. Once again Robbins asks us to examine, “how strong bureaucracies, marginalized producers, and interspecies alliances are connected and how those connections become strong. Dwelling on connections, rather than on individual, atomized drivers, helps us to understand power, which, in a network model, as Jonathan Murdoch observed, ‘lies not in the properties of actors but in the relationship established between them.’”
One of the most controversial positions associated with actor-network theory is its insistence on the agency of nonhumans. Critics maintain that such properties as intentionality fundamentally distinguish humans from animals or from "things," and they have charged ANT scholars with making absurd claims about the capacities of nonhumans. ANT scholars respond that (a) they do not attribute intentionality and similar properties to nonhumans; (b) their conception of agency does not presuppose intentionality; (c) they locate agency neither in human "subjects" nor in non-human "objects," but in heterogeneous associations of humans and nonhumans. In addition, bringing nonhuman actors into the picture helps ANT avoid the exaggerated and highly criticized epistemological relativism (see Science Wars) that is often associated with constructivist theories, especially those inspired by the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK).
ANT has also been criticised as amoral. Bijker has responded to this criticism by stating that the amorality of ANT is not a necessity. Moral and political positions are possible, but one must first describe the network before taking up such positions.
Another criticism is that it suggests that all actors are equal within the network. It does not account for pre-existing structures, such as power, but instead sees these structures as emerging from the actions of actors within the network. Power emerges with the ability of an actor to align other actors to its interests. For this reason, ANT is sometimes seen as an attempt to re-introduce Whig history into STS; like the myth of the heroic inventor, ANT can be seen as an attempt to explain successful innovators by saying they were successful.
Case studies which use ANT are often highly descriptive, and can sometimes seem pointless to some critics. ANT (like historical studies) calls for judgment calls from the researcher as to what actors are important within a network, and which are not. Otherwise, it can be an endless process - six degrees of separation - we are all networked to one another - who are the most important in the construction of a particular technology?
In a workshop called "Actor Network and After", Bruno Latour was noted to say that there are four things wrong with actor-network theory: "actor", "network", "theory" and the hyphen. In a later book however (Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory), Latour reversed himself, accepting the wide use of the term. He also remarked how he had been helpfully reminded that the ANT acronym ‘was perfectly fit for a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler’ (the ant) – qualitative hallmarks of actor-network epistemology.
- ^ Michel Callon (1986). "Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay." In John Law (ed.), Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).
- ^ Bruno Latour (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Milton Keynes: Open University Press).
- ^ John Law and John Hassard (eds) (1999). Actor Network Theory and After (Oxford and Keele: Blackwell and the Sociological Review).
- ^ John Law (1992). "Notes on the Theory of the Actor Network: Ordering, Strategy, and Heterogeneity."
- ^ John Law (1987). "Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of Portuguese Expansion." In W.E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes, and T. J. Pinch, eds. (1987), The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
- ^ Keith Douglass Warner, Agroecology in Action: Extending Alternative Agriculture through Social Networks (Food, Health, and the Environment)
- ^ Paul Robbins. “Comparing Invasive Networks: Cultural and Political Biographies of Invasive Species.”
- Bruno Latour (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
- Article at the International Society for Information, Complexity and Design
- ANThology. Ein einführendes Handbuch zur Akteur-Netzwerk-Theorie, von Andréa Belliger und David Krieger, transcript Verlag, 2006.
- Actor-Network Theory at Learning-Theories.com
Scholars' home pages
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