Latour's Actor Network Theory

By Charlotte Nickerson, published March 03, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • Actor network theory, usually abbreviated as ANT, aims to describe any phenomena — such as climate change or a birthday party — in terms of the relationships between the human and non-human actors that create that phenomenon.
  • In actor network theory, sociological and technological factors hold equal weight. No phenomena can be solely social or technological. This stands in contrast to social and technological determinism.
  • Actor network theory fundamentally consists of actors or actors and assemblages or networks. These networks have power dynamics leading to phenomena such as translation (the transport with deformation of an idea).
  • In actor-network theory, all assemblages are made of actants, and all actors are themselves assemblages. In describing phenomena, scholars must use discretion in determining the level of complexity of their network.

History and Overview

Actor-network theory, often abbreviated as ANT, is an influential but controversial approach to understanding humans and their interactions with inanimate objects (Cresswell, Worth, & Sheik, 2010).

This theory is intended to counter the competing theories of social and technological determinism, which assume that all phenomena can be described exclusively in terms of social or technological factors.

Actor-network theory grew out of French and British studies investigating the sociology of science and technology beginning in the 1980s. The most notable of the field’s early researchers were Bruno Latour and John Law.

Initially, Law and Latour created actor-network theory as a means of understanding how innovation and knowledge-creation take place in science and technology. Law and Latour’s actor-network theory drew on existing work in science and technology studies, on studies into large technological systems, and from the work of a number of contemporary French intellectuals. 

Many of the tools characteristic of Actor-network theory, such as the ideas of translation, generalized symmetry, and the “heterogeneous network,” were developed in the 1980s in Latour’s text, Science in Action (Latour, 1987).

From the 1990s on, Actor-network theory became popular as a tool of analysis in a range of fields beyond science and technology studies, such as organizational analysis, informatics, health studies, geography, sociology, anthropology, feminist studies, technical communication, and economy. 

Components

Actor-network theory’s main premise is its focus on inanimate objects and their effects on social processes. To do so, the field employs a specific vocabulary: 

Assemblages

An assemblage is a technical term for a network. It is the sum total of the actants that make up a thing.

This thing can range from a piece of technology to an idea to, even, a hot dog (Cresswell, Worth, & Sheik, 2010). 


Actants

Actants, meanwhile, are a point or node in the network. Actor-network theory gives every actant in a network, be they human or not, an equal amount of value and agency. This fact has proven controversial (Cresswell, Worth, & Sheik, 2010). 

To illustrate this, consider the social network Facebook. According to actor-network theory, the technological activities — computers, and phones — have the same amount of agency, and are as important to the network, as the people  and the communication they support. 

Actors or actants are not objects, but an association between different elements that in themselves create their own network (Cresswell, Worth, & Sheik, 2010). 

One important concept in actor-network theory is that all assemblages are composed of actants, and that all actants are in themselves assemblages. 

For example, a human consists of a number of physical organ systems — the circulatory, endocrine, respiratory, and so on — and thoughts and expectations. All of these components can be broken down into their own, complex, systems, which act in tandem with each other.

To consider a less complex example, a birthday cake consists of all of its physical components — such as flour, sugar, and eggs — as well as the devices and labor used to make it — such as an oven, man-power, and a wooden spoon. These actants can be broken down further.

The flour in a birthday cake was grown as wheat and then ground, packaged, sold, and so on. The birthday cake can also be an actant in a further assemblage. It could be an actor in the assemblage of a birthday party or an afternoon at a cafe (Cresswell, Worth, & Sheik, 2010). 

Sociologists account for the complexity of all of these systems working together by considering them to be one unit, or a "black box." 


Translation

Translation is another core concept in actor-network theory. For actor-network theorists, the success of science is attributable to the ability of scientific networks.

This ability can be measured in terms of, say, their ability to force entities to pass through labs or clinics in order to harness scientific evidence and to enact actions that influence outcomes (Ritzer, 2004). 

According to actor-network theory, network effects in networks happen because of disputes between actors, such as when actors attempt to advance their own objectives.

Power is generated in the relationships between actants as a consequence of what sociologists call ordering structures. Central to this concept of the ordering struggle is the concept of displacement inherent in the process of translation. 

Translation is transport with deformation, and is both a process and an effect. Scientific knowledge and artifacts, for example, become translated as networks become more extensive and concentrated; as a result, modified versions of scientific knowledge emerge.

Translation is the process of establishing the identities and conditions of interaction, and of characterizing representations (Ritzer, 2004).

Principles

Actor-network theory has three main principles: agnosticism, generalized symmetry, and free association. In short, these principles embody the argument that there is no complete distinction between the social, the natural, and the technological.

The first principle of actor-network theory, agnosticism, advocates for abandoning any assumptions that the researcher had beforehand about the nature of networks, what caused them to form, and the accuracy of the accounts of their actants.

Actor network theory imposes impartiality and requires that all interpretations of the system be unprivileged (Cresswell, Worth, & Sheik, 2010).

The second principle of actor-network theory is generalized symmetry, which employs a single explanatory frame when interpreting actants, human and nonhuman.

According to this principle, investigators should never shift their methods in examining individuals and organizations, or even objects and non-objects, such as computers and the people who program them.

The third principle of actor-network theory is free association, which advocates for abandoning any distinction between natural and social phenomenon.

These distinctions, the theory argues, are the result of the effects of the network, are not causal, and cannot provide explanation (Cresswell, Worth, & Sheik, 2010).


Adoption

On a practical level, researchers consider actor-network theory useful in helping to appreciate the complexity of reality and for providing a lens into understanding how technology shapes social processes.

The theory can also be used  to provide a theoretically-informed approach to sampling by emphasizing all of the informants who are related to a certain technology as well as providing a conceptual tool and vocabulary that can shape these interpretations (Ritzer, 2004).  

In the end, actor-network theory is often used for describing networks, but its practical implications are limited. By identifying and describing the components of any situation, actor-network theory ignores external social forces such as gender or religion.

Actor-network theory has also been criticized for the ease of over-describing networks. In theory, an actant can be broken down to the atomic level, far beyond a level where it is practical for sociologists to use it to describe the relationships between actants that cause phenomena.

Scientists and technologists have used actor-network theory more and more in studying how socioeconomic worlds come into existence. These amounts range from subjects ranging from law-making to organization, religion, art, medicine, and architecture.

Actor-network theory has also yielded methodological insights. Work on medical diseases, for example, have illuminated the many factors and interactions between factors that influence how people experience illness.  


Critique

Perhaps actor-network theory's most controversial statement is its insistence on the capacity of nonhumans to be actors or participants in networks and systems.

Critics of actor-network theory, such as Langdon Winner, have argued that certain properties, such as the ability to be intentional in one's actions, separate humans from animals and "things."

In response, actor-network theorists have argued that they do not attribute intentionality and similar properties to nonhumans, that their conception of agency does not necessarily imply intentionality, and that the agency of actors in networks does not belong in the human actors or non-human actants in a network, but to the associations between humans and non-humans (Winner, 1993). 

Scholars have also called actor-network theory amoral. However, others, such as Wiebe Bijker, have countered this criticism by saying that the amorality of actor-network theory is not a necessity: moral and political positions are possible, so long as one describes the network before taking up such positions (Bijker, 1993).


Examples

Scallops in Brittany, France

Actor-network theory pays a large amount of attention to nonhumans and material things as actors as the scientists of the late-20th century began to study closely, through tools such as diagrams and microscopes, how non-human factors such as hormones or forests impact human affairs.

In describing agency, actor-network theory intends to describe how human and non-human actants exchange properties and capacities as part of a network that constitute, change, stabilize, or dismantle sociomaterial worlds.

In the 1980s, researchers attempted to solve economic hardships experienced in the St. Brieuc Bay in Brittany, France. They attempted to do so by setting up new devices for scallop larvae collection, hoping to find the cause of their decreasing quantities.

This collaboration, in the view of actor-network theory, required the collaboration and enrollments of both the scallops and fishermen in order to achieve their hoped-for scientific status (Callon, 1986).

In this case, agency arose from the network connections between the scallop larvae measuring devices, the scientists, and the fishing community of St. Brieuc Bay.

Education

Cosmopolitanism is the idea that all human beings are members of a single community. Social theorists have examined this idea empirically as an orientation of openness to foreign people and cultures.

Saito (2010) used actor-network theory to elaborate on how cosmopolitanism results from the interaction between actants.

He proposes methods of cosmopolitan education intended to extend students' attachments to foreign people and objects, to understand transnational connections in which their lives are embedded, and to act on these attachments and understanding to change the relationships between them and those from other countries.

Technology

Actor-network theory has been used frequently in studying technology (Saito, 2010), with a number of scholars using it explicitly in their research.

Bloomfield (1991), for example, presented a case study of the development of information systems in the UK National Health Service, evaluating his findings using concepts from actor-network theory.

These approaches, rather than prioritizing the social or technological aspects of these systems, intertwine arguments about social structures and technology with the conversations of actors as they attempt to persuade others to align with their own objectives.

Bloomfield's (1991) research emphasized how seemingly similar systems can produce very different outcomes in different locations as the result of the process of translation and network-building that occured — and the relationships between the people that brought them into existence.

Actor-network Theory vs. Social and Technological Determinism 

Actor-network theory has two main components: technique and humans. Traditionally, sociologists have focused on the purely sociological and technical aspects of forming networks.

For example, technological determinists believe that all of the outcomes of technological change — such as the creation of a new computer — are technological, rather than social.

On the other hand, social determinism argues that technological change can only be explained in terms of social categories (Cresswell, Worth, & Sheik, 2010). 

To think more about the separation between the technical and social aspects of a product, consider a mobile phone's keypad.

Without knowledge as to how every part of how a phone works, it becomes difficult to differentiate which parts of a keyboard's design are due to the technical limitations of the phone (such as the speed at which it is possible for the computer to register typing input), and which are due to the social and cultural expectations of the team that designed the phone's keyboard (such as expecting keyboards to begin with QWERTY). 

Actor-network theory considers both social and. technological determinism flawed, providing a so-called socio-technical account of networks where neither social or technical aspects are privileged.

In general, the theory argues that what appears to be purely social is partly technical, and what appears to be purely technical is partly social (Cresswell, Worth, & Sheik, 2010).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, March 03). Latour's Actor Network Theory. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/Actor-Network-Theory.html

References

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Callon, M. (1986). The sociology of an actor-network: The case of the electric vehicle. In Mapping the dynamics of science and technology (pp. 19-34). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Cresswell, K. M., Worth, A., & Sheik, A. (2010). Actor-Network Theory and its role in understanding the implementation of information technology developments in healthcare. BMC medical informatics and decision making, 10(1), 1-11.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Harvard university press.

Latour, B. (1996). On actor-network theory: A few clarifications. Soziale welt, 369-381.

Latour, B. (2007). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oup Oxford.

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Winner, L. (1993). Upon opening the black box and finding it empty: Social constructivism and the philosophy of technology. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 18(3), 362-378.

Saito, H. (2010). Actor‐network theory of cosmopolitan education. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 42(3), 333-351.