Monday, January 26, 2009

Actor-Network-Theory: Terms and Concepts

Key Concepts and Terms:

Infralanguage: remains strictly meaningless except for allowing displacement from one frame of reference to the next; deemphasizes social scientist and emphasizes actors

Actants rather than actors is a term used to stress that material causes as well as human actors may be determinants of social interactions and outcomes. The concept of actants in a network also stresses the interaction between material and human factors in any process. Actants may be sea scallops in the study of a network of marine biologists by Callon (1986), or may be technology in the organization, or may be data supporting a scientist's arguments. Human actors define representation of material actants, affecting how material environment interacts with actors in the network. Though representation is necessary for non-human actants, for some authors an "actor" is any system element which influences others in the network, be it a human being, a text, or an artifact. The machine in a network is an actor, shaped by the network and interacting with human actors. Other authors use "actor" to refer to humans and "actant" to refer to other influential system elements.

"An actor-network is composed of many entities or actants that enter into an alliance to satisfy their diverse aims. Each actant enrolls the others, that is, finds ways to convince the others to support its own aims. The longer these networks are, the more entities that are enrolled in them, the stronger and more durable they become. An actor-network is spliced; the actants intersect" (Spinuzzi, Clay. Network. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008).

Black box is a technical term for a device, system or object when it is viewed in terms of its input, output and transfer characteristics without any knowledge required of its internal workings. Almost anything might occasionally be referred to as a black box: a transistor, an algorithm, humans, the Internet. Latour defines black box as a term “used by cyberneticians whenever a piece of machinery or a set of commands is too complex” (DNA / double-helix as example).

Cooptation: a subprocess by which actants seek to have their individual objectives become agreed to by other actants as part of defining network objectives. Actors advance favored goals and solutions, then recruit other actors to be allies in the process of forming commitments to emerging networks. Immutable and combinable mobiles are artifacts (inscriptions?) that allow accumulation of

Intermediary: that which transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs. Can be taken not only as a black box, but also as a black box counting for one, even if it is internally made of many parts.

Mediators: transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry. Cannot be counted as just one; they might count for one, for nothing, for several, or for infinity, while intermediaries can only count for just one, or even for nothing because they can be easily forgotten.

Methodology: The primary ANT method is ethnographic, based on interviews with actors. ANT scholars also study "inscriptions," a phrase which refers to all texts and communications in all media. In the study of science and technology, inscriptions may be conference papers, journal articles, grants, and patents. The two methods are related, since inscriptions are the path used by actors to gain credibility in enrolment and cooptation processes during translation. That is, inscription is a process of creating text and communication artifacts that enhance and perpetuate the interests of an actor.

Networks: are the integration of the material and semiotic environments. ANT may be seen as a type of "material semiotics." The concept of generalized symmetry is the presumption that the material and semiotic components of networks are co-equal in importance. The concept of entelechy describes the mixing of material and human factors in networks. The term actor-network in ANT's name conveys the idea that the actor does not act "on his own" but only under the influence of a complex network of material and semiotic influences. Those in a network make a distinction between knowledge (ideas generated within the network) and beliefs (ideas generated outside the network)

Network instability: Actor-networks are in a continual state of becoming, including possible dissolution. From the viewpoint of the primary actor, networks demand continual maintenance or order. Among the ongoing processes of actor-networks are challenges to the role of the primary actor, desertion, betrayal, recruitment by competing networks, and all manner of changes in the constituent elements of the network.

Obligatory points of passage (OPP) are critical network channels. often designed by the primary actor to ensure communication must pass through his or her domain. That is, through obligatory passage points the actor becomes functionally indispensible to the network.
Punctualisation refers to the concept that the whole network is greater than the sum of its constituent parts. As networks build, synergistic capabilities are enabled; as networks fall apart, de-punctualisation refers to the collapse of networked capabilities as individual components struggle to pursue their individual goals separately.

Semiotics: the theory and study of communication and language in terms of signs and symbols. As such, ANT is closely related to symbolic interactionism

Simultaneous becoming: Culture, society, and nature are constructed simultaneously (Latour, 1992: 281) and are in a perpetual state of becoming. Therefore it is incorrect to think social causes can explain nature, or that natural science can explain the construction of culture. All are part of an interactive network in constant transition. Social and organizational life may be seen as an attempt to form and stabilize networks, a goal achieved only temporarily and transitionally in an unending process..

Stories: The complex process of translation which forms a network also occasions some actors to emerge as spokespersons, articulating the views and wishes of other silent actors in the network.

Texts are documents used in science to support rhetorical arguments

Tokens are the quasi-objects created through the synergy of network punctualisation. Their repeated creation strengthens and reifies the network. Failure of constituent parts to perform their roles, whether material or human, and whether through incapacity or disinterest, leads to network breakdown and de-punctualisation.

Translation is the term Callon (1986) used to refer to the process of forming a network, in his case a network of marine biologists seeking to restock the St. Brieauc Bay for the scallop industry. In Callon's conceptualization, the process occurs in four moments or steps, which by their original French labels are:
1. Problematisation, which defines the problem and the set of relevant actors who, by defining the problem and the program for dealing with it, make themselves indispensible;
2. Interessement, during which the primary actor(s) recruit other actors to assume roles in the network, roles which recognize the centrality of the primary actor's own role;
3. Enrolment, during which roles are defined and actors formally accept and take on these roles; and
4. Mobilisation, during which primary actors assume a spokesperson role for passive network actors (agents) and seek to mobilize them to action.Translation involves negotiations among human actors and representatives of material actants. Negotiations establish common sets of definitions and meanings for understanding the phenomena with which the network is concerned. The outcome of successful negotiations is an actor-network characterized by aligned interests. The degree of alignment is the degree of convergence of an actor-network.

Credit for many of these definitions should be given to G. David Garson's "Actor-Network-Theory". Otherwise, they are drawn from Latour's Reassembling the Social and Science in Action.


  1. Bruno Latour and Peter Sloterdijk at the GSD:

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