Actor-Network Theory

In my last post, I drew a map to plot out the various positions authors take when theorizing the technology and society relationship. I did that primarily so that I could destroy that map in this post by describing another theory that challenges the core assumption underlying all those other perspectives: that ‘technology’ and ‘society’ are two separate spheres that interact with each other in some kind of way.

Actor-Network Theory (or ANT for short) was developed in the 1980s and 90s primarily by three scholars: the French polymath Bruno Latour; the French engineer turned sociologist Michel Callon; and the English sociologist John Law. All three were involved in the early sociological studies of science and technology, and like their colleagues that developed the SCOT and SST positions, they argued against the technological determinism that was dominant at that time. But unlike the SCOT and SST approaches, ANT scholars took a closer look at this concept of ‘society’ that was supposedly exerting a shaping force upon technological artifacts. What they concluded was something that promised not only to revolutionize the way people thought about technology and society, but also to shake the entire foundation of social theory down to its core.

Reassembling the SocialThe problem, as Bruno Latour articulates it in his book Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, is that social theorists have traditionally thought of society as a ‘thing’, an entity that has some kind of separate existence from its participants. This thing called society was assumed to be made only of “social stuff” (as opposed to material stuff) that was surprisingly durable and all encompassing of its participants, much like the ‘aether’ of 19th-century physics. This allowed society to be an independent ‘force’ that could somehow influence not only its human participants, but also the techniques and material artifacts they produced. But it also had the effect of making society into something that was more like a mysterious force than a phenomenon that could be studied in a scientific way.

Actor-Network Theory, in contrast, argues that there is actually no such ‘thing’ as society. That is to say, society isn’t an entity that is separate from its participants. There’s no place you can point to and say “there is where society is.” Instead, society is more like an enactment, a condition that is constantly re-achieved every time a set of people interact with one another in a given pattern. Because it exists only in time, it is also fragile and prone to change; as soon as people start acting differently, a new kind of society becomes traceable (this is similar to various interactionist positions, and Latour himself comes out of ethnomethodology).

Latour, who was originally trained as an anthropologist, began thinking about this in the context of baboon societies. Baboon, like humans, create relatively complex social orders, but they do so using only direct bodily interactions. One baboon can try to enforce a particular dominance hierarchy over others, but as soon as that baboon is no longer physically present, the order starts to break down. Even when the dominant baboon is there, others will periodically test and challenge its dominance, leading to a recurring re-negotiation. Because baboons are limited to physical bodily interactions, their societies remain limited in size, and are subject to frequent reorganization.

In contrast, human societies seem to have no problem growing quite large in scale, spreading over wide geographic areas, and expressing features that remain relatively durable across many generations. Even pre-modern tribal societies seem to create networks of social links that persist even when participants are not present, and stay more or less intact throughout many generations. How is this achieved? If a society needs to be constantly re-enacted, how can it be extended and reinforced across space and time?

What Latour and his fellow ANT scholars concluded was that the very mechanism that enables us to extend and reinforce human societies across space and time is the thing we call ‘technology’. Material artifacts such as clothing, jewelry, houses, and cars don’t just reflect something called social class, they actually make it possible to assert such a concept in the first place and reinforce it over space and time. Communication media such as books, newspapers, telegraphs, telephones, television, and now the Internet don’t sit apart from something called culture and influence it from time to time, they are the very things that make it possible to create a geographically dispersed yet cohesive culture in the first place. Techniques such as money, corporations, the scientific method, engineering, and law are not just products of a modern culture, they are the very things that construct and reinforce that kind of culture we call “modern.”

In other words, technology and society are so deeply and inextricably intertwined that it would be misleading to talk about them as if they were two separate things that interact from time to time. They are mutually constitutive, each literally making the other, completely interdependent for their very meaning. Without technology, there would be no human society, and without that society, there would be no technology.

For ANT scholars, society is nothing more than a temporary assemblage of connections made between ‘actors’. Actors are “anything that makes a difference,” so they include both humans and non-human agencies/artifacts that influence in some way the connections that are being made. When analysts trace these connections, they reveal various ‘networks’ of which the actors (and now the analyst) are a part. These networks are often consciously constructed by a particular actor (called a ‘network builder’), who ‘enrolls’ other actors (human or otherwise) into the network by ‘translating’ them (literally “speaking for” them). Networks allow some actors to influence the behavior of others, but they are also quite fragile; as soon as those other actors resist or otherwise thwart the translation effort, that part of the network will fall apart.

If you take ANT seriously (which I do), it requires you to completely reorient the way you think about technology and society. A question like “is the technology destroying our society?” becomes almost meaningless since technology is the very thing that makes a geographically-dispersed, temporally-stable social order possible. We can still discuss how a given technology is developed and adopted, and whether the way it changes our social links is a good or bad thing, but the idea of a human society existing without technology just doesn’t make any sense. I’ll elaborate on ANT in future posts, and show you how it can be used to better understand the technology-society relationship.

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11 thoughts on “Actor-Network Theory

      1. Eric E

        I highly recommend the book.

        I’ve actually been somewhat surprised and disappointed that Christians have not drawn more from Verbeek, Ihde and others in the post-phenomenological school of thought. They have been largely ignored by Christians. I think Christians who write about technology seem to approach the subject from a media studies background and are just unaware of the work going on in philosophy departments. (Borgmann is the obvious exception.) There is a lot Christians could learn from this school of thought.

      2. David Stearns Post author

        I completely agree that Christians have a lot to learn from the more recent investigations of technology that have come out of a few different disciplines. The Christian commentary seems to be based on a rather old version of media studies (McLuhan, Postman, Ong) and ignores some of the more recent ideas (e.g., domestication). It’s also based on a socio-philosophical thread that comes from Ellul and Borgmann, but again it ignores the more recent scholarship on the sociology and philosophy of technology. Part of the reason I started this blog was to introduce Christians to these newer ideas, with the hope of reforming the way we think and talk about technology.

  1. Brian Wixted

    Dave, what I struggle with is that I although think ANT is a pretty good way of thinking about actors in a system (try getting that published outside of a limited number of fields though) is that I think that both SCOT and ANT do not come to grip well enough with the challenges of technological change. ANT has some great examples of attempts at technological development – failed and successful but doesn’t often take full account that there is still a physical world out there that proves over and over again to resist our attempts at understanding and manipulation. Christian keeping ‘technology’ just in the bubble of various philosophical positions troubles me.

    Reply
    1. David Stearns Post author

      Have you read Michel Callon’s work, especially his article on the electric vehicle in France? Because ANT theorizes artifacts as actors, they say things like the batteries refused to be enrolled in the network. A nicely poetic way of saying that the physical realities of the batteries at the time resisted all attempts by the engineers to make them perform in the necessary way. But Latour thinks that an ‘actor’ is “anything that makes a difference,” and in that case, the batteries certainly made a difference (they were one of the reasons the project failed).

      The SST folks prefer to use the word “obduracy,” saying that the material world is often too obdurate to be reshaped completely according to our desires (they say this as a critique of SCOT and other social-determinist stances). It communicates the same idea without seeming to ascribe agency to artifacts.

      Reply
  2. Brian Wixted

    Dave, it was the ‘electric vehicles’ article I was thinking about as I wrote. Please don’t misunderstand, I have been using ANT increasingly in my own work even if it is a little minimalist for the likings of purists, but perhaps they are a little too poetic for my liking when it comes to the physical world.

    Reply
  3. Adam

    Dave –

    I see value in this view. I think it makes a lot of sense. At the same time, I’ve been bothered by the question, “Is any social product NOT technology?” Or maybe in ANT terms, “Is any actor not technological?” If there is, how does ANT account for that? One example that would come to mind is a story. Couldn’t an oral story be considered an actor but not a technology? Or does ANT encompass more than technological actors?

    As well, conflating technology and society so completely, while perhaps closer to reality, seems to obscure the meaning of a given technology. By seeking to understand a given technology in some controlled sense helps to understand the technology, much like we do science experiments in controlled environments. (Now we’re studying the effects of science’s discoveries!)

    Like I said, I see the value in this view, and I certainly need to learn more about it, but I’m unclear about how it helps us better understand or explain technology’s tendencies. Or am I simply still living in the old paradigm?

    Adam

    Reply
    1. David Stearns Post author

      Thanks for the comment Adam. The vocabulary used in ANT can be confusing, so let me try to answer your questions with a few definitions. In ANT, “anything that makes a difference” is considered an ‘actor’, and those actors can be human or non-human. Human actors, as you might expect, are people. Non-human actors are either other biological organisms (e.g., microbes–Latour wrote some very interesting articles on Pasteur), or human-created artifacts. All these actors play a role in the constant re-achievement of the condition we call ‘society’ or the ‘social order’. The key is to realize that extending a given social order across time and space requires some kind of “extra-somatic” (beyond the body) resources, and in the ANT world those resources are material artifacts and the host of ideas that go along with them.

      So “is any social product not a technology?” Depends upon what you mean by “social product.” I’m not sure what Latour would say about a purely oral story. He would probably call the story teller a network builder that is trying to enroll the audience into his/her network by speaking for them, giving them a story that makes them think about the subject in a particular way (kind of like an ideology). But chances are, any rendition of a story would involve a constellation of supporting artifacts: a performance space, clothing & costumes, props, etc. There are very few activities or interactions that we have that don’t involve some set of material artifacts.

      ANT still allows one to focus upon a given device or system, but it will never think about that device as if it was somehow a separate thing from society that comes from outside to “impact” it. If an ANT study looks at television, it would probably focus on the ways in which TV enabled certain actors to enroll others into new kinds of social networks (in the general sense). The studios, cameras, radio waves, cables, and TV sets are all non-human actors that help form a new kind of social order. But those non-human actors are not simply passive intermediaries–they are active mediators, that sometimes thwart the efforts of the human actors attempting to enroll them into a particular kind of use.

      In any case, your comment points to the need for me to explain this a bit more, especially via examples, which I will endeavor to do in future posts.

      Reply

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