Tag Archives: Latour

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.

Technology and Culture, Part I

I started this blog with my definition of the word ‘technology’, and it’s now time for me to define what I mean by ‘culture’ and how I think the two interact. Someday I’ll get to ‘Christian spirituality’, but one step at a time!

Without a doubt, the concept of culture is complicated. It’s a bit like the concept of money–it surrounds us, we rely on it nearly every day, but when pressed to define it precisely or comprehensively, most of us would have a hard time doing so. Both money and culture are concepts that seem to point towards real, tangible things in the world, but when we press into them and start to examine them more closely, they begin to disappear, slipping through our analytical fingers like dissipating smoke.

Since a full theoretical exploration of culture and its relation to technology will take several posts, I want to start by reviewing an article that helped me think more clearly about all this. It’s entitled “Redefining the Social Link: From Baboons to Humans“, written by the French sociologist (and provocateur) Bruno Latour and the primate anthropologist Shirley Strum. It’s a fairly succinct article that introduces the reader to Latour’s very interesting way of thinking about technology and culture, which I have found to be particularly enlightening.

He begins by setting up a bit of a straw-man to represent the more traditional sociological approach, one that he refers to as the “ostensive model.” This model assumes that society is something that is “out there,” apart from the individual actors that participate within it. Sociologists can learn some information about the society from the participants, but these poor “dupes” can never see what the objective sociologist is able to see–the overall social structures that constrain and guide the actions of the participants.

(For those new to sociological language, ‘actor’ is a term used to describe any social participant. This allows one not only to speak about human and primate societies using the same language, but also to allow non-human actors—that is, machines—to have some degree of agency in the society. See actor-network theory, which I will describe in a later post.)

Latour then suggests a different approach, one he terms the “performative model.” This model comes from blending the sociological work of Garfinkel with that of Latour’s own anthropological study of scientific practice (see Science in Action). Instead of assuming that society exists somehow apart from actors, encompassing and controlling them, the performative model sees society as the product of the actors’ own attempts to define it. That is to say, society is constantly re-created every time one actor convinces another actor that society is the way that first actor says it is.

The authors illustrate this first by talking about baboon societies. Contrary to initial scientific opinions, baboons do construct somewhat complex social orders, and the establishment of dominance seems to be at the heart of them. But this still leaves an open question: how do the baboons know who is dominant and who is not? They seem to be constantly testing each other, as humans often do, to see who is allied to whom, who is the leader of whom, and what strategies are most effective for making others do what they want them to do.

The authors then make the following, rather startling conclusion: the primate researcher and the baboons are trying to answer the same question! They are both attempting to define the social order by participating, interacting, and observing the results. With each interaction, they are attempting to articulate some aspect of the social order, and if they are successful in convincing others of their claims, the social order (both for the baboons and for the scientists) is recreated as they say it is.

Baboon societies, however, are limited in scale and tend to be somewhat fragile and fleeting compared to human societies. This, the authors argue, is because baboons have few resources besides their bodies with which to convince others of their definitions of the social order. A male baboon might be able to assert dominance over his local area, but cannot extend that dominance to places he does not frequent. Baboons within a given society are also constantly testing one another, vying to establish a new dominance and thus a new social order.

So what does this have to do with human societies and technology? Well, as opposed to baboons, we humans have developed many types of symbolic and material resources with which we can extend a particular social order across both space and time. These resources are the ideologies, techniques, institutions, and material artifacts that we interact with most every day. They are not only the products of technological practice, but also the things we commonly lump together under the word ‘culture’.

This is not to say, however, that these technologies have a deterministic affect on those who choose to adopt them. A stereo set is a symbolic and material resource that the producers and marketers might use to assert a particular aspect of the social order, but the adopters of that artifact may in turn use it in a different way, ascribing to it a new meaning in order to assert a different kind of social order. Both groups are trying to convince others that the world is the way they say it is, using the various resources at their disposal to extend that definition over space and time.

In short, technology and culture are really two sides of the same coin. When we look at it one way, we see technological practitioners producing knowledge, techniques, artifacts, and systems that change the way we relate to one another. When we look at it the other way, we see social groups forming shared values, traditions, institutions, and material practices that define and reinforce the group. But we’re really talking about the same thing: attempts by actors to convince others that the world is as they say it is.