What is Actor-Network Theory?

from Thierry Bardini
Actor-network theory (ANT) evolved from the work of Michel Callon (1991) and Bruno Latour (1992) at the Ecole des Mines in Paris. Their analysis of a set of negotiations describes the progressive constitution of a network in which both human and non-human actors assume identities according to prevailing strategies of interaction. Actors' identities and qualities are defined during negotiations between representatives of human and non-human actants. In this perspective, "representation" is understood in its political dimension, as a process of delegation. The most important of these negotiations is "translation," a multifaceted interaction in which actors (1) construct common definitions and meanings, (2) define representativities, and (3) co-opt each other in the pursuit of individual and collective objectives. In the actor-network theory , both actors and actants share the scene in the reconstruction of the network of interactions leading to the stabilization of the system. But the crucial difference between them is that only actors are able to put actants in circulation in the system.
From Joseph Goguen
Actor-network theory can be seen as a systematic way to bring out the infrastructure that is usually left out of the "heroic" accounts of scientific and technological achievements. Newton did not really act alone in creating the theory of gravitation: he needed observational data from the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, he needed publication support from the Royal Society and its members (most especially Edmund Halley), he needed the geometry of Euclid, the astronomy of Kepler, the mechanics of Galileo, the rooms, lab, food, etc. at Trinity College, an assistant to work in the lab, the mystical idea of action at a distance, and more, much more (see the book by Michael White). The same can be said of any scientific or technological project.

from Ole Hanseth

ANT was born out of ongoing efforts within the field called social studies of science and technology. The field of social studies of technology in general and ANT in particular are evolving rapidly. When going about doing your business -- driving your car or writing a document using a word-processor -- there are a lot of things that influence how you do it. For instance, when driving a car, you are influenced by traffic regulations, prior driving experience and the car's manoeuvring abilities, the use of a word-processor is influenced by earlier experience using it, the functionality of the word-processor and so forth. All of these factors are related or connected to how you act. You do not go about doing your business in a total vacuum but rather under the influence of a wide range of surrounding factors. The act you are carrying out and all of these influencing factors should be considered together. This is exactly what the term actor network accomplishes. An actor network, then, is the act linked together with all of its influencing factors (which again are linked), producing a network.

An actor network consists of and links together both technical and non-technical elements. Not only the car's motor capacity, but also your driving training, influence your driving. Hence, ANT talks about the heterogeneous nature of actor networks.

from Lars Risan

In what they have called a "network theory" [Latour and Callon] have developed a vocabulary that does take the distinction between subjects and objects, the subjective and the objective, into consideration. What they call an "actant", for example, is more than a human actor. Both humans and nonhumans may be actants. An actant may be "enrolled" as "allied" to give strength to a position. When a biologist argues for the existence of a molecule, the data that prove this existence are enrolled actants. An actant may be an automatic door opener (Latour 1988), or it may be scallops in the sea (Callon 1986). In networks of humans, machines, animals, and matter in general, humans are not the only beings with agency, not the only ones to act; matter matters.
from Jay Lemke
Actant-Network Theory has its origins in studies of the networks of interdependent social practices that constitute work in science and technology. Bruno Latour recognized that semiotically both human actors and nonhuman participants (whether artifacts or naturalized constructs like bacteria) were equally actants in the sense of Greimas' narrative semiotics: they were defined by how they acted and were acted on in the networks of practices. The important fact here is not that humans and nonhumans are treated symmetrically (a given in social semiotics and ecosocial dynamics) but that they are defined relationally as arguments or functors in the network, and not otherwise. This leads to a relational epistemology which rejects the naive positivist view of objects or actors as existing in themselves prior to any participation in ecosocial and semiotic networks of interactions (including the interactions by which they are observed, named, etc.). Actantial-relational epistemology is not nominalism, but far more sophisticated. ANT has much in common with Ecosocial Dynamics, but adds one crucial observation: that the usual view of dynamical systems assumes that they have a local topology, and so events nearby in space and time are more relevant than those at a distance, leading to neat separation of scales of processes. ANT notes that the topology of networks is in general non-local, and further that semiotic artifacts are often the 'boundary objects' that mediate non-local, scale-breaking interconnections. This leads to a powerful generalization of ecosocial systems theory to include network topologies (and the rarer laminar topologies) and makes possible a general inquiry into scale-respecting vs. scale-breaking dynamics. See discussion in Lemke, Aarhus paper. In addition to Latour, key figures in ANT include: M. Callon, J. Law, M. Lynch, S. Woolgar, and S.L. Star.
from Bowker and Star
Latour, Callon and others within the actor-network approach have developed an array of concepts in order to describe the development and operation of technoscience. Their valuable concepts include: regimes of delegation; the centrality of mediation; and the position that nature and society are not causes but consequences of human scientific and technical work. The position that a fact may be seen as a consequence, and not as an antecedent, is axiomatic to the American pragmatist approach.
from Michael Callon
ANT is based on no stable theory of the actor; in other words, it assumes the radical indeterminacy of the actor. For example, neither the actor's size nor its psychological make-up nor the motivations behind its actions are predetermined. In this respect ANT is a break from the more orthodox currents of social science. This hypothesis (which Brown and Lee equate to political ultra-liberalism) has, as we well know, opened the social sciences to non-humans.
from Bernd Frohmann
ANT's rich methodology embraces scientific realism, social constructivism, and discourse analysis in its central concept of hybrids, or "quasi-objects", that are simultaneously real, social, and discursive. Developed as an analysis of scientific and technological artifacts, ANT's theoretical richness derives from its refusal to reduce explanations to either natural, social, or discursive categories while recognizing the significance of each (see, e.g. Latour 1993, 91). Following the work of Hughes, ANT insists that "the stability and form of artifacts should be seen as a function of the interaction of heterogeneous elements as these are shaped and assimilated into a network" (Law 1990, 113).
from Robert Keele
This framework (network) is comprised of components (actors) not all of which are usually (if ever) considered by the academically oriented sociologists. The network consists not only of people and social groups, but also artifacts, devices, and entities. Engineers who elaborate a new technology as well as all those who participate at one time or anotherin it's design, development, and diffusion constantly construct hypotheses and forms of argument that pull these participants into the field of sociological analysis. Whether they want to or not, they are transformed into sociologists, or what Callon calls engineer-sociologists.
from Reijo Miettinen
According to Latour, the modern constitution or world view uses one dimensional language operating in the framework of opposite poles of nature and culture. Knowledge and artifacts are explained either by society (social constructionisms) or by nature (realism). In order to transcend this dualism a second dimension is needed. It is the process of nature/society construction that results in the stabilization of a strong network. By selecting this process as a unit of analysis, it is possible to understand the simultaneous construction of culture, society and nature (Latour 1992a, 281): "Instead of being opposite causes of our knowledge, the two poles are a single consequence of a common practice that is now the single focus of our analysis. Society (or Subject, or Mind or Brain ...) cannot be used to explain the practice of science, since both are results of the science and technology making." The fact or artifact is transformed into a black box, once the network of many actors has been stabilized. "The reason why we went to study the laboratories, active controversies, skills, instrument making, and emerging entities was to encounter unstable states of nature/society and to document what happens in those extreme and novel situations (Latour 1991, 287)." The concept of "science and technology making" is - in my opinion - parallel to the concept of object-oriented, environment transforming human activity developed by materialistic dialectics and the Activity theory. The ANT raises the challenge of studying reality as transitional in its becoming, and as trajectories of creation. This idea of becoming and change is one of the central methodological ideals of dialectics as well.

From Nancy Van House:

Actor-network theory (ANT) is concerned with the processes by which scientific disputes become closed, ideas accepted, tools and methods adopted - that is, with how decisions are made about what is known. These decisions are often - usually - temporary, but closing the black box, in Latour's terms, of disputes allows people to take the work of others as a resource and move on, rather than continually reproducing and questioning it. According to their model, the work of science consists of the enrollment and juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements - rats, test tubes, colleagues, journal articles, funders, grants, papers at scientific conferences, and so on - which need continual management. They conclude that scientists' work is "the simultaneous reconstruction of social contexts of which they form a part - labs simultaneously rebuild and link the social and natural contexts upon which they act."

Methodogically, ANT has two major approaches. One is to "follow the actor," via interviews and ethnographic research. The other is to examine inscriptions.

Inscriptions - including texts, but also images of many sorts, databases, and the like -- are central to knowledge work. Some (e.g., Latour and Woolgar, 1991; Callon, Law, and Rip, 1986) say that texts (including journal articles, conference papers and presentations, grant proposals, and patents) are among the major, if not the major, products of scientific work. Inscriptions make action at a distance possible by stabilizing work in such a way that it can travel across space and time and be combined with other work.

Texts are also central to the process of gaining credibility. They carry work to other people and institutions. They attempt to present work in such a way that its meaning and significance are irrefutable. And texts are where authors establish equivalences among problems, which Callon et al. (1986) identify as a major strategy of enrolling others. An important part of the standard journal article or grant application, for example, is to say, in essence, "If you are interested in X (major issue) you must be interested in Y.

From Sidorova & Sarker

ANT is based on a large number of concepts, including ...


Any element which bends space around itself, makes other
elements dependent upon itself and translate their will
into the language of its own. Common examples of actors
include humans, collectivities of humans, texts, graphical
representations, and technical artifacts. Actors, all of which
have interests, try to convince other actors so as to create
an alignment of the other actors' interests with their own
interests. When this persuasive process becomes effective,
it results in the creation of an actor-network.
Actor Network
A heterogeneous network of aligned interests.

The creation of an actor-network. This process consists
of three major stages: problematization, interessmant, and
enrolment. Numerous actors within an organization may be
involved in a different process of translation, each with its
own unique characteristics and outcomes. For purposes of
clarity, it is useful to focus on a single actor, from whose
vantage point we wish to see the process of translation.

The first moment of translation during which a focal actor
defines identities and interests of other actors that are
consistent with its own interests, and establishes itself as
an obligatory passage point (OPP), thus "rendering itself
indispensable" (Callon, 1986).

The obligatory passage point, broadly referring to a situation
that has to occur in order for all the actors to satisfy the
interests that have been attributed to them by the focal actor.
The focal actor defines the OPP through which the other actors
must pass through and by which the focal actor becomes

The second moment of translation wich involves a process of
convincing other actors to accept definition of the focal actor
(Callon, 1986).

The moment that another actor accepts the interests defined by
the focal actor.

A process of creating technical artifacts that would ensure
the protection of an actor's interests (Latour, 1992).

The degree to which it is subsequently impossible to return
to a point where alternative possibilities exist (Walsham, 1997).

See also ...

ISCID Encyclopedia of Science and Philosophy (2003)
Actant Networks (Cornelius Holtorf)
Latour's Actor Network Theory (Felix Stalder)

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