Tag Archives: technological artifacts

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.