Having just written my short essay on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and given that in our next class we will be discussing actors and networks, I thought it would be useful for us all if I wrote guide on some of the basics of ANT.
Firstly, what even is ANT? Its intended purpose is to look at the connections between different actor nodes and explain how the actions of one actor is the result of all the other actors connected to it. In other words, every event is in some way caused by connections between actors.
Now, it is important to note that an actor can be literally anything! Both humans and nonhumans are actors. Moreover, the reason why ANT classes anything as an actor has to do with its redefinition of ‘agency’. For ANT, agency does not mean that an actor has the ability to act out of free-will as we are accustomed to thinking. Rather, it means that an actor simply has an effect on another actor.
Let me give you an example of why it is helpful to understand nonhumans as possessing agency in networks. Say Bernhard wakes up one morning in a bad mood. He is in such a bad mood that when he gets in the car to drive to St Katherine’s Lodge for work that he does not want to fasten his seatbelt in the car. As he starts the car and then begins driving, the seatbelt alarm sounds. For the first minute or so, he does carries on driving with the alarm sounding. But then, after a little while he starts getting so annoyed by the alarm that he pulls over to fasten his seatbelt and carry on driving in peace. Thus, the seatbelt alarm exercised agency that influenced Bernhard (our actor) to obey the law. What is important to note here is that if a human actor (say a policeman) pulled Bernhard over to tell him to put his seatbelt on, the result would have been exactly the same as our nonhuman seatbelt alarm. This means that both humans and nonhumans exercise very similar agency.
Now, if you think back to our class on micro and macro history, you will remember how we discussed that the two do not need to be separate. Micro history is intertwined with macro history. Well, ANT provides a more advanced framework for understanding this idea. If we think of everything existing in terms of networks of actors (see the right hand diagram below), then ideas of scale do not matter. Even if ‘actor a’ is more ‘macro’ than ‘actor b’, there is no reason why ‘actor b’ can have just as much effect on the network as ‘actor a’. Therefore, ANT does away with the diagram on the left where ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ are viewed as having to be studies separately as they are unconnected.
Another important aspect of ANT is that it removes the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. This is along the lines of what we have already discussed this semester, namely that networks of actors can transcend national boundaries, thus enabling us to conduct a transnational history. This involves thinking in terms of the right hand diagram below and not the left hand diagram. National history writes history in terms of everything inside the nation being important and everything outside the nation being almost irrelevant. Both transnational history argues more that what is important is the networks of individuals that go beyond the national borders.
ANT takes this one step further by showing that everything that exists is found within networks, and that anything outside of the networks does not exist at all from the perspective of the network. Thus, in order for an actor to be important, it must be connected to the network itself. Actor-Network theorists (Ants) such as Bruno Latour and John Law take this perspective to its extreme by adopting a postmodernist view to this. For example, Latour argues that before Galileo discovered the phases of Venus, they did not actually exist at all! Galileo’s understanding of Venus from his (relativist) perspective was the result of connections between actors and cannot be said to resemble ‘truth’. Thus, everything that we see around us is the result of connections of actors and cannot be said to actually be objectively ‘true’.
Now, I appreciate that the last paragraph may have been quite complex, so let me slow things down a bit by giving us some more basic terminology.
One important concept to understand is that of ‘black-boxing’. Basically, this just means that networks should be kept simple. There are so many different actors and so much complexity within actors that it would simply be impossible to understand everything and come up with a comprehensive network analysis. Because of this, Ants ‘black box’ this complexity. If we go back to our seatbelt example and wanted to construct the network, it would take hours to explain all the connections within the seatbelt technology and how all the electronics and mechanics of it works. Instead, it is much easier to assume that the technology works and ‘black box’ all this complexity so we can get on with understanding the most important connections within the network.
You also need to know a little bit about the concept of ‘translation’ too. Let me illustrate this with an example, as this will make it easier to understand. The reason why we are all here doing this transnational history module is because Bernhard thought up of the idea a few years ago. In this sense, he is a more important actor than us because he is responsible for assembling all other actors such as students into the network. In other words, Bernhard as ‘translated’ us all into the ‘transnational history at St Andrews’ network because he is the actor with which this network revolves around. The same goes for the nonhuman actors in this network. In week 6 when we gave presentations, we as students, ‘translated’ other nonhuman actors into the network, for example the faulty projector became an important actor in the network, as did Microsoft PowerPoint. Simply put, ‘translation’ means that one actor brings other actors into a network through their agency.
I hope to have made some of the concepts of ANT a bit clearer, though there is far more complexity to this. Hopefully this will help some of you out with the reading for next class!
 Bruno Latour, ‘Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts’ in Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law (eds), Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (Cambridge, 1992), p. 151.
 Ibid., pp. 151-152.
 Bruno Latour, ‘On actor-network theory. A few clarifications plus more than a few complications’, Soziale Welt 47 (1996), pp. 5-6.
 Ibid., pp. 6-7.
 Bruno Latour, Aramis: or the love of technology (Cambridge, 1996), p. 23.
 Jonathan Murdoch, ‘Inhuman/Nonhuman/Human: Actor-Network Theory and the Prospects for a Nondualistic and Symmetrical Perspective on Nature and Society’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 15 (1997), pp. 747-749.
2 thoughts on “”
Having initially struggled, myself, to comprehend the specific methods employed by proponents of actor-network theory, this elucidation has helped a great deal. In fact, after having recently read the Secord’s “Knowledge in Transit” (albeit too late for my own short essay on actor-network theory in the realm of scientific communication), I was able to understand the movement and spread of, say, circulations of scientific knowledge, in the light of a constant trade-off. Specifically, I found it difficult to understand the importance of nodal points, or ‘locuses’, in the integration of micro and macro processes that occurred in these networks of human and non-human actors. – I saw them each as contributing factors to the networks. As Secord seemingly posits (like yourself), there is an inherent problem with labelling, not just micro and macro developments as separate, but also the significance that one places on places of origin, transmission, and reception. Explicitly, Secord’s understanding that “things-in-motion” are the essential component of the transfer/circulation of knowledge highlights how each locality within a transnational network used and was used by knowledge/information, itself, as the method of communication and, thus, micro or macro analyses are utterly dependent on the “things”, or information, that is doing the communicating. Moreover, location is of secondary or tertiary concern.
I have learned a lot from this blog post – very well phrased. Most crucially, I have learnt: seatbelt equals police officer. Second, you should publish in the “Dummies” series (this is very well phrased and explained). Third, and this is where I strongly disagree: Bernhard as an actors as an A (as in ANT) hardly ever wakes up in such a bad mood. B is a rather positive human-actor (but that aside: a nice example, yet with a fictitious bent or clear misreading of that A as actor).
Interesting to read Ryan’s comment on yours. As I had read Ryan’s blog post first, I thought to match you up for class for our group discussion…
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