Actor-network theory 101

Actor-network theory is pretty cool but… It seems so obscure at first ! Here is my first post. It is a (too) short summary of ANT and some its concepts, and an entry point into the strange life of actants and networks.


When I first heard about Actor-network theory I was pretty exited. I thought that considering anything from humans, to objects likes computers, to ideas or institutions as entities (actants) which evolving relationships can be analyzed in terms of network effects was awesome. Social phenomena as network effects? This is great!

But then, I went online and started reading articles and books. The more I read, the harder it became to understand anything about ANT. Sooo if you are starting to discover ANT, or if you’re just curious, here is a short summary of some of its ideas and main concepts. So…Let’s get sciency. By the way, from now on, I will call Actor-network theory ANT, because I’m lazy, and everybody does so.

Enjoy!


As such, actor-network theory is hard to quickly sum up, but it can in an exceedingly rough manner be defined as an approach to sociology that treats anything from social relations to organization (including news institutions) as network effects (Law, 1992). Also know as the sociology of associations or sociology of translation, numerous scholars tend to describe ANT as a research strategy or a toolbox (Latour, 1996, 2005; Lee & Hassard, 1999). Others, as the name shows, consider it a theory though this has been widely debated amongst the first generation of scholars who problematized ANT (Bruno Latour, 1999; Law & Hassard, 1999).

This often deliberate in-betweeness of ANT (Toennesen, Molloy, & Jacobs, 2006) enables researchers to freely use some of the elements that make it a theory (mainly concepts and vocabulary) and ignore others while regularly deploying it as a research strategy. ANT proposes to consider society as “performed through relations, connections and associations; it is the outcome of daily interactions, rather than an abstract structure that organizes those interactions and gives meaning to them” (Domingo et al., 2014). In this sense, social phenomena can only be explained by tracing the associations of actors (Bruno Latour, 2005), and the use of an infra-language (a collection of simplistic concepts used by ANT). Using this infra-language allows to take on the actant’s own vocabulary, their own meta-language , to speak in their own terms, while allowing to multiply, discuss and compare works, studies, actor-networks, actants, etc. In order to do so, researchers produce critical accounts of the various controversies they study while tracing networks.

These associations are made between a various heterogeneous actors (humans but also objects, institutions, ideas, etc.). One of ANT’s advantage -being that it treats heterogeneous actors the same way- makes it possible to include and debate the place of not only individuals but also technologies (computers, databases, websites, etc.), institutions, (normative) ideals, or symbolic constructions (Plesner, 2009), in the networks. In order to consider all actors equitably and equivalently the notion of actant is used to erase the distinction between what’s human (journalists, politicians, activists, etc.) and non-humans (objects, technologies, institutions, ideals, etc.). By writing down accounts and through the use of a diversity of ethnographical methods, the researchers sole role is to re-assemble actants in motion in the actor-network (Bruno Latour, 2005).

Controversies hold a predominant position in ANT because it is during controversies that relations between actants become visible.. Those controversies may deal with the nature of groups, actions, facts, objects, or the type of studies made on the topic (Latour, 2005). ANT’s main proposal is to follow the actants creating connections during controversies to trace the network of relationships and interactions. The network becomes visible over time because of the changes of actant’s positions and relationships through translation (Latour, 2010). Translation is a concept created to explain the work of assembly done to create an actor-network through a controversy (Michel Callon, 2006) and includes four main stages: problematization, interessement, enrolment, and mobilization (M Callon, 1986). Through translations, actants come to exercise authority over other entities of the network (Toennesen et al., 2006).

If a network of actants (be a group of people, an institution or an organization) becomes stable over time, it can acquire the “force of nature” (Latour, 2005) in the sense of seaming natural. This has the consequence not to render the network invisible to actants, but to hide the fact that it is a network made of dynamic, complex and unstable relationships. A stable network as such is termed a black box, because of the impossibility for the researcher to distinguish the variety of forces keeping the network together. The emphasis must not be put on the fact that you can’t see it but that you can’t see how they are related.

Finally, a distinction between mediators and intermediaries has to be made. An intermediary is an actant within an actor-network whose outputs are equal to its inputs. If an intermediary, according to Bruno Latour, can be regarded “not only as a black box, but also as a black box counting for one” (2005: 39), a mediator cannot be regarded as such because it fosters transformations, translations and modifications to the meaning or to the elements of the network. Finding mediators helps to understand the processes of translations within an actor-network and distinguish different entities.

It is true that the use of ANT in fundamental research encompasses a wide array of methodological and epistemological advantages as well as possible flaws. Mainly, ANT has been criticized for being an approach limiting its practitioner to descriptivism leaving researchers with little possibility for explanation (Benson, 2014). This is believed to be (at least partly) true when the use of ANT is limited to methodological considerations without taking into account its epistemological and ontological implications (Toennesen et al., 2006). Nonetheless its main strengths are the fact that one can start with controversies to identify the actants interacting in the network -instead of imposing sociological concepts on who is part of what-, and that no pre-established sociological categories are used to describe them.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Benson, R. (2014). Challenging the “New Descriptivism”: Restoring Explanation, Evaluation, and Theoretical Dialogue to Communication Research. In Qualitative Political Communication Research Pre-conference, International Communication Association. Seattle.

Callon, M. (1986). The sociology of an Actor-Network. In J. Law & A. Rip (Eds.), Mapping the Dynamics of Science and Technology (Macmillan.). London. Retrieved from http://scholar.google.be/scholar?q=Callon%2C+M.%2C+1986.+The+sociology+of+an+actor-network.&hl=fr&as_sdt=0%2C5&as_ylo=1984&as_yhi=1986#0

Callon, M. (2006). Sociologie de l’acteur réseau. Presses des Mines. Retrieved from http://books.openedition.org/pressesmines/1201?lang=fr

Domingo, D., Masip, P., & Costera Meijer, I. (2014). Tracing digital news networks: Towards an Integrated Framework of the Dynamics of News Production, Circulation and Use. Digital Journalism, 15(1).

Latour, B. (1996). On actor-network theory: a few clarifications plus more than a few complications. Soziale Welt, 47, 369-381. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/40878163

Latour, B. (1999). On recalling ANT. In J. Law & J. Hassard (Eds.), Actor Network Theory and After (Blackwell., pp. 15-25). Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-954X.1999.tb03480.x/abstract

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social. An introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Vol. 7, pp. 500-502). doi:10.1163/156913308X336453

Latour, B. (2006). Changer de société, refaire de la sociologie (La Découve., p. 406). Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=fr&lr=&id=Nn6VAgAAQBAJ&pgis=1

Latour, B. (2010). Cogitamus: six lettres sur les humanités scientifiques. Retrieved from http://scholar.google.be/scholar?hl=fr&q=cogitamus&btnG=&lr=#0

Law, J. (1992). Notes on the theory of the actor-network: Ordering, strategy, and heterogeneity. Systems Practice, 5(4), 379-393. doi:10.1007/BF01059830

Law, J., & Hassard, J. (Eds.). (1999). Actor-Network theory and after (Blackwell., p. 256).

Lee, N., & Hassard, J. (1999). Organization unbound: actor-network theory, research strategy and institutional flexibility. Organization. doi:10.1177/135050849963002

Plesner, U. (2009). An actor-network perspective on changing work practices: Communication technologies as actants in newswork. Journalism, 10(5), 604-626. doi:10.1177/1464884909106535

Toennesen, C., Molloy, E., & Jacobs, C. (2006). Lost in translation: Actor network theory in organization studies. Human Relations, 1-37. Retrieved from http://burn.dk/talk/wp-content/ct_ant.pdf

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