Actor-network theory

Actor-network theory – ANT. Wow.

I think I’m going to need a while to sit and consider Bruno Latour’s ANT concept, and then revisit it time and time again to gain a more comprehensive understanding. However, after some academic research and the help of some handy Youtube tutorials ‘in plain English‘, here’s what I’ve come to ingest thus far.

ANT is commonly misunderstood (something of which I’m not surprised given its complexity). It is a theory (though not concerned with ‘why’ or ‘how’) based on free association between actors – or actants – who can be human, non-human, and/or non-individual entities.

Technological determinism assumes technical changes occur as through technical elements of a technical network. In parallel, social determinism favours social categories as instigators of change. ANT disregards both determinisms, seeing them as flawed.

Latour says ANT ‘wishes to build social theory out of networks’ and asserts a socio-technical approach where most things considered ‘technical’ are also socially-informed in the same way social networks are being technically-influenced.

In ANT, an actor ‘is something that acts or to which activity is granted by others [and] can be anything provided it is granted to be the source of an action’. All actants are equal and cannot be considered purely technical nor social. Furthermore, each actant is in themselves a network, consisting of various elements.

‘ANT makes use of some of the simplest properties of nets and then add to it an actor that does some work; the addition of such an ontological ingredient deeply modifies it.’

ANT lets go of the following oppositions:

  • Far/close: networks rid us of ‘the tyranny of distance’ or proximity. For example, you can be sitting next to someone on Platform One waiting for your next train to Hurstbridge and be on the phone to your housemate at home. Physically, you are in closer proximity to the person by your side yet network theory positions you as being more closely connected to your friend, a number of kilometres away, at home.
  • Small scale/large scale: Latour says no network is bigger than another, they are simply longer or more intensely connected. This point is something I’ll have to consider at greater length as to me, at this present time, it questions many of my assumptions (inherently influenced by media and the like) that networks can be big or small.
  • Inside/outside: Latour also states ‘a network is a positive notion which does not need negativity to be understood’ as it is ‘all boundary’ where the only question can be whether a connection exists between two elements.
  • And, priori order relation: this somewhat contradicts my preceding simplistic, superficial understandings regarding social networks (the connotations of which Latour notes and seeks to dislodge). However, I understand that while nodes are of differing sizes, networks aren’t simple structures of hierarchy. They are of changeable scales, where their type, number and topography of connections can grow, shrink and evolve throughout time.

ANT seems to be pretty democratic. It is fair and refrains from privileging any actant over another. Actors are conceived as ‘flows’, circulating objects whose continuity must be obtained by other actions and trials. They are ‘infinite[ly] pliab[le]’ and ‘absolute[ly] free’.

To further complicate things, Latour says the only explanation for ANT comes from networks’ essential property of ‘become[ing] more explainable as [the networks] go and depending on what they do to one another’.

‘Each network by growing in ‘binds’ so to speak the explanatory resources around it and there is no way they can be detached from its growth… Every network surround[s] itself with its own frame of reference, its own definition of growth, of referring, of framing, of explaining.’

In conclusion, ANT focuses on adding, connecting, and travelling, and mapping relations between what is material and what is conceptual.

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