What Really Is Actor Network Theory Philosophy Essay

In the 1990s there was a war going on in science, or maybe a few wars – the so called Science Wars. From one side there were the “postmodernists” (better known as post-structuralists), on the other side there were the natural scientists. The war started, or better, culminated with an article, that was really a hoax, published in the journal Social Text, one of the most notorious “postmodernist” journals. The article/hoax entitled “Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity” was written by the physicist Alan Sokal (1996), and its purpose was to show to the world how stupid and meaningless was/is the postmodernist endeavor in the studies of science. The whole article was made up just by meaningless phrases that sounded “postmodern” (see Sokal 2008 the entire Part I). After the revelation of the hoax Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote a book entitled “Fashionable Nonsense. Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science [1] ” (1998) in which they bombed the whole French post-structuralist scene, and a little bit more. In a nutshell, they showed that most of the French post-structuralists and other close-to-post-structuralism philosophers hadn’t had really a clue about science, and that most of their theories come out of ignorance of the fields they were/ are writing about.

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One of the “fashionable” guys attacked in “Fashionable Nonsense” was Bruno Latour (92-99, 124-133 [2] ), the major representative of Actor-Network Theory (from now on: ANT). He was attacked mainly for pushing extreme social constructivism in social sciences and sciences all together. Basically, Latour supported the thesis that there aren’t scientific facts but just the social construction of scientific facts as was a fashion of the “strong program” in the sociology of science [3] . Hor instance, he used, no more no less, Einstein’s theory of relativity to explain how scientific knowledge is socially constructed, but it seems he didn’t really understand Einstein’s theory. Latour has lately (2004) changed a little bit his mind about the extreme constructivist positions, maybe because he has seen that his positions really helped not sociology but the political and religious conservative and far right in pushing their ideas about creationism, global warming and similar issues. He even asked himself “[w]as [he] wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed of for good?” (2004:227). This retreat isn’t that new. As Gross and Levitt [4] noted (1998:59), “Latour is aways ready to recast and, in effect, retract what he previously said. In other contexts he will, with an apparently straight face, admit that there is a natural universe “out there” and that scientific theories are shaped by it in important ways. Simultaneously, he will censure rigorously the dogmatics of strict cultural constructivism. Just as he pictures (literally) the mind-set of science as a Janus-faced dualist, he too is constantly springing from one side of a dichotomy to the other.”

Bruno Latour, even though he, as we have seen, did repent for the consequences that his and other “strong program” theorists work provoked, in 2005 wrote an introductory book on ANT: “Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory.” In that book he tried to explain again the whole ANT story, but not that well, in my opinion [5] . In the following lines I’ll try to explain, more or less, what ANT is or should be, not just based on the mentioned book, but also on various articles on ANT that can be retrieved on the Internet and other books and journals.

ANT seems to be a particular or distinctive approach to social theory and research which has its origins in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), mostly developed by Michel Callon, Bruno Latour and John Law. In the last twenty years ANT has been used as a tool for research in fields such as organizational analysis (for ex. Cochoy 2009), informatics (for ex. McInerney 2009), health studies (for ex. Dent 2003), geography (for ex. Smith 2003), sociology, anthropology, feminist studies and economics (for ex. Jones 2008).

Already the title of the theory is very problematic. Bruno Latour states in his book (2005:9) that “[…] the historical name is ‘actor-network-theory’, a name that is so awkward, so confusing, so meaningless that it deserves to be kept.” Every part of the ANT is questionable. It’s not really about “actors” in a classic sociological sense, the “network” part is misleading (see Latour 1998) because it doesn’t refer to the concept of network as in Social Network Analysis or electronic networks [6] , and it is not really a “theory” in the classic sense, it can be reckoned as a set of theories which have similar characteristics. As a matter of fact, he admits that he was “ready to drop this label for more elaborate ones like ‘sociology of translation’, ‘actant-rhyzome ontology’, ‘sociology of innovation’, and so on […].” (2005:9).

How then we can recognize a theory that belongs to the ANT family? Latour puts forward three tests in order to do that (2005:10-11):

“One of them is the precise role granted to nonhumans. They have to be actors […] and not simply the hapless bearers of symbolic projection. […] [A]ny study that gives non-humans a type of agency that is more open than the traditional natural causality – but more efficient than the symbolic one – can be part of [ANT] corpus, even though some authors would not wish to be associated in any way with this approach.”(10).

“Another test is to check which direction the explanation is going in. […] If the social remains stable and is used to explain a state of affairs, it’s not ANT.” (10)

“A third and more difficult test would be to check whether a study aims at reassembling the social or still insists on dispersion and deconstruction. […] Dispersion, destruction, and reconstruction are not the goals to be achieved [as in postmodern theories,] but what needs to be overcome. It’s much more important to check what are the new institutions, procedures, and concepts able to collect and reconnect the social […].” (11).

We can see that Latour is very vague, and it seems he wants to be like that. In short we can say that in ANT humans, nonhumans and language are all on the same level. They all together form a network of actors that form the world. He uses and criticizes very often the concept “social”, many times as opposed to the concept “associations.” “Social” is for him a concept that many sociologists use as a name for a material the society is made of (2005:1), or some glue of society. But that’s wrong, because there isn’t something social, there are associations between heterogeneous elements (2005:5). “Thus, social, for ANT, is the name of a type of momentary association which is characterized by the way it gathers together into new shapes.” (2005:65). In my opinion this is not that groundbreaking. Well, the association of humans and nonhumans might be a little bit strange (or I’m too positivist and backwarded), but the idea of not using concepts as “social forces” and similar black magic (or as Latour would call, as we shell see, black boxes) terms is present in sociology much longer than ANT. For example we can check Howard S. Becker (2007) where he explains the errors of using vague concepts as “social forces”, etc… So, interactionists (try to) explain already very well what people do and how they create everyday life, without going into exotic theories that are not that clear even to their main representatives.

ANT is considered sometimes a method and sometimes a theory. “[A]nti-essentialism informs both the conceptual frame used for interpretation and guides the processes through which networks are examined.” (Ritzer 2004:2). There are three methodological principles in ANT:

agnosticism. We should abandon “any a priori assumptions of the nature of networks, causal conditions, or the accuracy of actant’s accounts” (Ritzer 2004:2). There should be impartiality from our side. This principle reminds us about Grounded Theory methodology with the “added value” of impartiality towards objects that are not humans.

generalized symmetry. Everybody in a network is the same: computers and programmers, clerks and computer networks… Basically we should dissect everything

free association. there shouldn’t be any distinction between natural and social phenomena.

The ANT methodology is usually ethnographic. To be precise they often use the case study method. They use to spend time like anthropologists, but not in forests, and other places typical for anthropological research, but in laboratories with scientists. “ANT scholars also study “inscriptions”, a phrase which refers to all texts and communications in all media” (Garson 2008).

Let us see which are the central concepts of ANT. I will use secondary analyses of ANT by Felix Stalder and David Garson. Here are the main concepts:

Actors: “entities that do things” (Latour, 1992a, p. 241, as cited in Stalder 1998), no matter whether they are humans or any kind of nonhumans. Some authors use actors for humans and actants for other parts/ system elements of the network (Garson 2008) [7] . “The distinction between humans and non-humans, embodied or disembodied skills, impersonation or ‘machination’, are less interesting than the complete chain along which competences and actions are distributed.” (Latour, 1992a, p.243, as cited in Stalder 1998) “[…] An actor is an actant endowed with a character.” (Akrich, Latour, 1992, p.259 – as cited by Stalder).

In Ritzer (2004:1) we can find that “[t]he “volitional actor” for ANT, termed actant, is any agent, collective or individual, that can associate or disassociate with other agents. Actants enter into networked associations, which in turn define them, name them, and provide them with substance, action, intention, and subjectivity. In other words, actants are considered foundationally indeterminate, with no a priori substance or essence, and it is via the networks in which they associate that actants derive their nature.”

Network: the network is defined as a “group of unspecified relationships among entities of which the nature itself is undetermined.” (Callon, 1993, p.263 – as cited in Stalder 1998). The inclusive character of this definition becomes more evident when contrasted with one of the conventional sociological definitions of network where “a social network consists of a finite set or sets of actors and the relation or relations defined on them” (Wasserman, Faust, 1994, p.20 – as cited in Stalder). An actor-network is not restricted to ‘social actors’, not even to actors in the theory’s broader sense.

“There is no structural difference between large and small actors, between a major institution or a single individual or even a thing as mundane as a door opener (Latour, 1992 – as cited by Stalder 1998).

Black Box: simply put, a black box contains a sealed network of people and things. But let’s see what ANTers say: “A black box contains that which no longer needs to be considered, those things whose contents have become a matter of indifference.” (Callon, Latour, 1981 p.285 – as cited in Stalder 1998). “A black box, therefore, is any setting that, no matter how complex it is or how contested its history has been, is now so stable and certain that it can be treated as a fact where only the input and output counts.” (Stalder 1998). For example, all the concepts in sociology as “social forces”, etc… are black boxes. Cars are black boxes because we can drive them even though we don’t know how are they built. The more it costs to “reopen” a black box, the more it will be stable. It’s not just a matter of the black box, but also of the environment in which it is settled (well, everything is in the network…).

At the end of the day it seems that ANT became a black box too, because it “became a fixed center or obligatory point of passage by the mid-1990s” (Ritzer 2004:3).

Other important concepts are:

Punctualisation: a concept that means that the whole actor-network is greater than the sum of its constituent parts. “As networks build, synergistic capabilities are enabled; as networks fall apart, de-punctualisation refers to the collapse of networked capabilities as individual components struggle to pursue their individual goals separately.” (Garson 2008).

Tokens: “are the quasi-objects created through the synergy of network punctualisation.” (Garson 2008). The constant creation of tokens reifies a network, when they stop being reproduced the network breaks down, or, there is de-punctualization.

Translation: is the process of forming a network. This process occurs in the four following moments or steps (Garson 2008):

Problematisation: defines the problem and the set of relevant actors who become indispensable

Interessement: primary actor(s) recruit other actors to assume roles in the network, roles which recognize the centrality of the primary actor’s own role

Enrolment: roles are defined and actors formally accept and take on these roles

Mobilisation: primary actors assume a spokesperson role for passive network actors (agents) and seek to mobilize them to action.

Translation is really a negotiation among human actors and representatives of material actants.

Stories: The complex process of translation which forms a network also occasions some actors to emerge as spokespersons, articulating the views and wishes of other silent actors in the network.

Negotiation in the translation process is marked by:

Obligatory points of passage (OPP): they are critical network channels often designed by the primary actor to ensure that communication must pass through his or her domain. In this way the actor becomes functionally indispensable to the network

Cooptation: it is “a subprocess by which actants seek to have their individual objectives become agreed to by other actants as part of defining network objectives. Actors advance favored goals and solutions, then recruit other actors to be allies in the process of forming commitments to emerging networks.” (Garson 2008).

Translation model of power: it is a term for viewing power as a relation emerging bottom-up rather than imposed top-down. “Those who hold power in principle may not hold power in practice as the latter requires the ability to define, create, and stabilize networks of actors motivated to work in conjunction to accomplish a task. That is, power is seen as a consequence of convincing, enrolling, and other network-building activities.” (Garson 2008). This concept reminds a lot the “foucaultian” concept of microphysics of power.

Black-boxing: it is a subprocess by which the network becomes more simple by treating subnetworks as single elements in an actor-network

Irreversibility: is achieved by an actor-network when it is no longer possible to return to an earlier network state or to alternatives present prior to the network

Network instability. Actor-networks are in a continual state of becoming, including possible dissolution. Networks demand continual maintenance or order

In my opinion all the concepts are vague, probably intentionally. I really wonder if the whole theory and its concepts could have been explained in a more simple way, and I wonder why is it always like that in post-structuralism (I know, this is an ad hominem mistake)?

ANT was often criticized for being managerialist, for emphasizing Nietzschean mastery, as Machiavellian, for colonizing “the other,” for being antihumanist, and for representing the powerful. (Ritzer 2004:3). I would add that the founders of ANT write pretty much in an elitist and unclear way. It sounds more like poetry or showing off with strange PoMo-style phrases difficult to understand. I got used to that with Baudrillard, Lyotard, etc… But what can we do with it in everyday life? We cannot stop natural scientists to laugh about ANT mumbojumbo for sure.

I would say that ANT as a research methodology brings nothing new, or nothing newer than the good old methodology of case study, the grounded theory methodology (Glaser/Strauss 2008) or ethnomethodology on which ANT is partially based. As an explanation for what is “really” going on it is still a safe bet to stick with interactionist theories from one side, and on the other side, we should use more explanatory theories based on strict field research and model building. For that is handy the analytical sociology approach developed, among others, by Peter Hedstroem (see Hedstroem 2005).

With the analytical sociology approach we could finally develop more “core knowledge” which is feeble in sociology (see Cole 1994) – but nevertheless it exists (see Collins 1989) – and leave the “research frontier” to a few artists. Analytical sociology “seeks to explain complex social processes by carefuly dissecting them and then bringing into focus their most important costituent components. […] It is an approach that seeks precise, abstract, realistic and action-based explanations for various social phenomena.” (Hedstroem 2005:1). So, in the analytical approach we have to explain social phenomena, not just describe it as most grand social theories do. We have to dissect the social phenomena to its smallest parts and then abstract the most important parts and build a model. In doing that we must be precise and clear. “If it is not perfectly clear what a given theory or theorist is trying to say, how can we then possibly understand and assess the potential merits of the theory being proposed?” (Hedstroem 2005:3-4), asks Peter Hedstroem, and as an example of unclear theory he takes a French (who else could he take?!) sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his definition of habitus (2005:4).

I agree with Hedstrom that social theories should be based on the construction of models, or explaining social mechanisms, and a social mechanism “is a constellation of entities and activities that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about a particular type of outcome” (Hedstroem 2005:10).

To conclude, I think that ANT is maybe an approach that could have a major success in the future when there will come the time people will understand French philosophy much better [8] , until then I propose to stick with more positivist approaches that can actually really explain why things happen.