Actor-Network Theory: Trials, Trails and Translations

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Mike Michael

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    About the Author

    Mike Michael is a sociologist of science and technology, and a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. His research interests have touched on the relation of everyday life to technoscience, the role of culture in biomedicine, and the interplay of design and social scientific perspectives.

  • A Selective Glossary of ANT and Post-ANT Terms

    Actant

    Derived from the semiotics of Greimas, ‘actant’ is a term that designates a particular entity – human or nonhuman – which acts within a narrative of network-building. ‘Pasteur’ is such an actant – a signifier derived from various texts and deployed in the narration of the rise of Pasteurism (Latour, 1988a). Other authors are sceptical of its utility, suggesting that it unnecessarily complicates what are in actuality realistic accounts about a real entity or persons such as Pasteur (Lynch, 1993).

    Action Nets

    ‘Action nets’ has been proposed by Czarniawska (e.g. 2004) as a supplement to actor-networks that places more stress on the processes of organizing rather than on organizations or actors, and prefers a version of translation that is more dispersed, often spreading beyond the ostensible confines of an organization (or network) and more mutualist (in which actors at all levels of an organization contribute to the process of organizing). On this score, story-telling and story-sharing is of particular importance in the everyday sense-making necessary for organizing.

    Actor (macro, micro)

    Actor is used in several ways in ANT. It connotes any entity (human or nonhuman) within a network (hence actor-network). It is opposed to an intermediary, and as such does not simply faithfully transfer information or materials from a sender to a receiver. And it implies a ‘primary entity’ that makes some sort of major difference in the emergence of a network. Actors are composite entities, comprised of networks. Macro-actors, such as institutions, are really micro-actors (a single actor, or a few actors) who have successfully associated together many other actors, and can serve as spokespersons for the macro-entity.

    Actor-network

    An actor-network ‘emerges’ with the successful alignment of an array of heterogeneous elements that, in ‘classical’ ANT, will ‘do the bidding’ of the ‘primary actor’, and in post-ANT more or less loosely hold together. Importantly, the process of alignment is also heterogeneous entailing the circulation of materials and signs that serve in the (partial) enrolment of elements into the relevant (though sometimes ambivalent) roles.

    Ambivalence

    In some networks, actors can take on ambivalent roles – both integrated into a network and antagonistic toward it. Contra the ‘classical’ view of actor-networks, despite this chronic ambiguity, a network can remain durable, and even thrive.

    Amodernity

    According to Latour (1993a), modernity is characterized by the ostensible separation – or purification – of the human and nonhuman. However, humans have always already been embroiled with nonhumans. We are thus located in an amodernity in which humanity is necessarily marked by hybridity. The proliferation of noteworthy hybrids through modern technoscience has sensitized us to our amodern constitutive hybridity.

    Assemblage

    Though not a worthy translation of the French ‘agencement’, assemblage is a patterned array of connections and composed of all manner of heterogeneous elements. These arrays can be ‘territorialized’ into sets of structured (or root-like) patterns and/or deterritorialized into promiscuous or fluid (rhizomic) patterns.

    Associations

    Associations are the links or connections that are made between actors. In ‘classical’ ANT associations are engendered when one actor interposes itself between other actors, translating their interests, severing other associations, and aligning those actors with itself.

    Black Box

    A black box contains that which no longer needs to be considered. All that is of interest is the input and the output. If input and output reliably link, then the work that has gone into making the black box loses relevance. Anything that operates as black-boxed is thus resistant to problematization and can therefore be used for making associations and building networks.

    Boundary Objects

    Boundary objects straddle different networks (or social worlds). They are sufficiently stable and robust to retain their identity, while sufficiently adaptable and plastic to be understood and used in divergent ways by those inhabiting different networks (or worlds). The result is that collaboration across networks is possible, without threat to the participating network members.

    Centres of Calculation

    These are sites wherein technoscientists bring together and combine many heterogeneous components – experimental materials and technologies, particular analytic and calculative skills, various inscription devices. The work that goes on in centres of calculation yields ‘immutable mobiles’ that can be sent back into the world, and used to generate problematizations, translate interests, and further network-building.

    Composition, Compositionism

    Composition refers to the gathering and combination of heterogeneous actors and entities to produce a new entity, a particular reality. Compositionism references the view that all such realities are thus constructed. Rather than see this as a problem, the recognition that everything is composed (including the assumptions on the basis of which one critiques) means that politics should proceed less by critique, and more through a gathering of the different compositions. Such gatherings are composed too, so it is not possible to model these separately from those who bring their compositions to that gathering.

    Construction

    Like composition, construction indexes the ways in which realities are constituted through the bringing together and combination of heterogeneous elements. The construction of the reality known as a ‘scientific fact’ embraces both the ‘social’ and the ‘technical’.

    Convergence

    Network elements that might otherwise be divergent can be brought together in various ways to afford that network durability. Convergence is usually a matter of a strict alignment of elements which might lead to the ‘irreversibility’ of a network (e.g. through standard setting, or potent enrolment). However, convergence can also take looser forms (e.g. through ambivalence, or boundary objects) in which durability is grounded in more pliable associations.

    Cosmopolitics (also political ecology, ecology of practices)

    Cosmopolitics is concerned with bringing together the disparate practitioners and practices that can contribute to the making – the emergence – of the issue at stake. This is a hesitant process in which final positions must be guarded against. Practitioners can be both ‘loyal’ to the objects of which they speak, but also recognize that these objects are composed, not least through their disciplinary commitments and skills. This all means, on the one hand, that one cannot presuppose what counts as ‘nature’ in cosmopolitics (the point of ‘political ecology’), and on the other, that one cannot presuppose the nature of the bringing together of practices and practitioners (the point of an ‘ecology of practices’).

    Description

    Description is the preferred form of ‘analysis’ for ANT. Rather than seeking explanations (that draw on social theories about structuration, or practice, or neoliberalism, or risk society), ANT analysts seek to describe what they observe in close or ‘thick’ detail. In this way they can reveal the local mechanisms by which associations are realized, and networks built.

    Disentanglement

    This term addresses the ways that framing a market exchange simultaneously breaks up entanglements or associations. Thus the object of an exchange is disentangled from previous owners. However, such disentanglement also generates new attachments (e.g. to the legal system).

    Displacement

    Displacement indicates the many means by which technoscientists, in the building of their networks, go about directing information, people, materials and resources. In order to enrol others, various ways of rendering associations need to be put into play: organizing public events, meeting with important actors, circulating publicity, all serve in the process of enrolment.

    Durability

    Durability denotes the continuation of a network through a variety of means, notably the movement of intermediaries continuously and faithfully repeating a given message and in the process replicating, normalizing and perhaps standardizing roles, associations and their distribution.

    Enactment, Enact

    Enactment and enact fulfil similar functions to performance and perform. Both reference the ways in which discourses, practices, technologies, bodies act in ways to construct and distribute a particular reality. For Mol (2002) the advantage of enactment and enact is that they do connote a central ‘performer’ or a reality behind the performance.

    Enrol, Enrolment

    At base, these terms index the successful placing into designated roles of given entities. By translating the interests of these entities, these entities are dissociated from previous relations and placed into new desired associations so that they can perform appropriately within a network.

    Event, Eventuate

    Event is a complex and contested term is used here to indicate that when elements come together within a specific occasion, they can mutually change or eventuate – co-become – in ways that redefine the event in unexpected ways. This means that the event is not easily identifiable – indeed, it needs to be treated in terms of potentiality, that is, the possibilities that it eventuates.

    Fire, Fire Objects

    The shifting patterns or presence and absence in the composition of certain objects mean that they manifest in dramatically different ways from one location to another. Rather than the more or less smooth transitions of fluids, these ‘fire objects’ move as in a bush fire – in fits and starts across locations, sometimes they are creative, sometimes destructive.

    Flatness, Flat Ontology

    In opposition to those mainstream sociological accounts which look to explanations in terms of factors above, below or beyond actors (e.g. neoliberalism, risk society), ANT works with flatness – or a flat ontology. It is assumed that any large social actor is composed of associations extending out amongst smaller actors. How these associations are accomplished and maintained is always a local matter in which such practices as problematization and translation, etc. are brought to bear.

    Fluid, Fluidity

    As certain objects move across settings, what they are can change as new associations enter into their making. This transitioning can be thought of in terms of fluidity as the seemingly identical object changes over and over as it moves (much like a fluid).

    Framing

    Framing refers to the ways in which boundaries are drawn between what is taken into account, and all that is ignored, when actors make calculations (for a financial deal, a contract, or a market exchange). However, framing results in overflowing as the disentanglements involved in framing also generate new entanglements (e.g. to frame something, commitment to certain framing devices is necessary).

    Free Association (the tenet of)

    Free association refuses any in principle distinctions between the social, natural, or technological. Given the usual hybridity of all actors and entities in a network or assemblage, what ‘counts as’ social, natural or technological can only be worked out through close empirical study of the particular case study.

    Generalized Agnosticism (the principle of)

    This principle advocates that the researcher remains impartial as to what or who are involved in any given controversy. The application of the same form of analysis to all human actors – whether the losers or winners of a scientific dispute – is thus extended to all the nonhumans that are present, whatever their position within the controversy.

    Generalized Symmetry (the principle of)

    In pursuing the analysis of the role of human and nonhuman elements within a network, it is important to apply common analytic tools, not least the use of a neutral terminology that does not distinguish amongst these elements, but rather seeks to trace how they are allocated the status of human or nonhuman.

    Heterogeneity, Heterogeneous Engineering

    Heterogeneity signifies the ANT commitment to a view of the social world as composed of a variety of elements – humans, natures, technologies. Heterogeneous engineering refers to those actors who in building or engineering their networks have to marshal, enrol and arrange a multiplicity of humans, natures and technologies.

    Hybrid

    The world is composed of hybrids – mixtures of humans, natures and technologies. Rather than think in terms of humans versus nonhumans, ANT pays attention to the necessary embroilment of these: without books, computer, smart-phone, lighting, projector, desk, etc., etc., one could not function as a ‘contemporary scholar’.

    Hybrid Collectif

    This is another version of actor-networks. Importantly, ‘collectif’ highlights the problem of network extension. Given that in principle a network can extend indefinitely in terms of number and length of associations, why, where, when and how does one stop bringing more elements into the analysis?

    Hybrid Forums

    These are arenas occupied by diverse actors who come together to negotiate. What they are negotiating might vary, straddling any field or topic. Key is that the negotiation draws on participants from all relevant walks of life, non-expert as well as expert, amateur as well as accredited. Further, the forum is such that it works against the entrenchment of positions and allows shifts in the identities of the participants.

    Immutable Mobile

    Usually a text that can, with the aid of certain techniques (notably, the Cartesian coordinate system), combine numerous representations together (figures, graphs, numbers, tables) into simpler and harder representations that resist problematization. Such immutability is allied to mobility – such texts can travel with considerable ease, retaining their meaning as they move, and are able to combine with other texts as and when required.

    Infra-reflexivity

    Infra-reflexivity is set in opposition to meta-reflexivity (Latour, 1988a). If meta-reflexivity is anxious that representations will be believed despite their social constructed-ness, infra-reflexivity is hopeful that representations are believed precisely because they are (socially) constructed well. The fact is that all representations are constructed, even those that lament or celebrate that fact, and that in their constructed-ness work to enrol their readers into joining the lament or celebration.

    Inscription Device

    Inscription devices such as bioassays or NMR spectrometers generate inscriptions that are written into papers that become immutable mobiles. Insofar as they are black-boxed, inscription devices produce inscriptions that are not easily problematized. Put another way, inscription devices are arguments transformed into pieces of apparatus.

    Interessement

    The term ‘interessement’ captures those practices that an actor employs to impose and stabilize a particular identity on other actors, once that identity has been problematized. First problematize the French public as failing to fulfil their desires for a more ecological France, then ‘interesse’ them in the identity centred on electric vehicles as the solution to this problem.

    Interests

    Loosely, interests can be said to refer to the concerns, desires, identities, purposes, etc. which people aim to realize. Within ANT, interests are relational – actors might have interests but these can be fluid and emergent, and, crucially they can be instilled through the processes of problematization, interessement, enrolment, etc.

    Intermediary

    For Latour (2005a), the ‘intermediary’ is any entity that faithfully conveys meaning from a sender to a receiver so that an association can be accomplished. It can be contrasted to the figure of the ‘mediator’.

    Material Semiotics

    Material semiotics is the study of how in the making of heterogeneous associations all manner of actors (human and nonhuman) and arrangements (organizations, inequalities) are produced. ANT is a sub-set of material semiotics.

    Matters of Care

    Matters of care highlights a particular dimension of matters of concern, namely that it is necessary to treat with ‘care’ those arguments and actors with which one disagrees. That is to say, one must take into careful account the composition of others’ enactments, though one must also be careful about this too (does taking care turn to a lack of care under certain circumstances?).

    Matters of Concern

    Matters of concern points to the gathering or assembling or composing that takes place when producing a matter of fact. Such composing entails a multitude of elements, practices, ‘interests’, contingencies, and so on. The aim is not to debunk matters of fact, but to show how these are constituted in order to open up the possibility of negotiation amongst them.

    Matters of Fact

    Matters of fact are matters of concern where the process of composition has been lost or hidden from view. They are partial matters of concern, often put to polemical use.

    Mediator

    Mediators are unfaithful intermediaries that transfigure, refashion and deform the messages that pass between entities. This does not simply disrupt or destroy associations but can proliferate and complicate them.

    Method Assemblage

    This term addresses the complex, partial, fluid articulations between the realities of the researcher and the realities of their object of study – realities which are shifting, emergent, messy and multiple. One upshot is that there is much that cannot be included in the explicit account of this articulation (either because it cannot be accessed, or because it is ‘othered’). The result is that research, in its ‘partiality’ and ‘selectivity’ enacts or performs its object of study.

    Modes of Ordering

    This term refers to the processes (e.g. the spatial configuration of an organization) and practices (e.g. discourses) that perform orders, that is, patterns of associations (which can be more or less fluid). Modes of ordering has been used to explore the operations of hierarchy and power within organizations

    More-than-Human

    The ‘more-than-human’ entails the combination of elements of ANT with other perspectives (such as that of Haraway) in order to illuminate the ways that the human is embroiled within a nexus of nonhumans which should be treated as fluid and multiple, complex and contested, connected and differentiated. Importantly, the more-than-human throws into relief the situated ‘experiential’ dimensions of nonhumans and how these are partially shaped by the physical constitution and capacities of those entities.

    Multinaturalism, Pluriverse

    These terms denote the fact that there are multiple realities and multiple natures that reflect the different ways in which diverse heterogeneous elements are brought together and composed.

    Obligatory Passage Point, Obligatory Points of Passage

    To enrol actors is also to orient them towards particular sites (e.g. centres of calculation) and particular actors (e.g. technoscientists). To realize their new role (or identity) these enrollees must necessarily pass through such obligatory passage points.

    Ontological Multiplicity

    This concept draws on the argument that reality – or ontology – is enacted. Different enactments (by different specialisms, say) generate a multiplicity of realities. There is thus no real ‘reality’ that lies behind these enactments, but the complex array of associations drawn into each enactment make different entities. Such multiplicity generates different sorts of ‘politics’.

    Ontological Politics

    The enactment of divergent realities (that together produce ontological multiplicity) can relate to each other in a variety of ways. Sometimes these are overtly political insofar as there is conflict between realities; sometimes they simply coexist; sometimes the politics are more tacit as when they are quietly and practically managed, or hang together non-coherently. Where multiple realities are quietly managed, this rests on ‘collateral realities’ that allow for communication across divergent realities. This evokes another politics, namely the exclusion of those who do not share in those collateral realities.

    Other, Othered, Othering, Otherness

    Any form of empirical engagement or analysis entails a process of ‘othering’ by virtue of emphasizing only certain elements of its object of study. The method assemblage however provides for the acknowledgement of its own partiality, whether that entails excluding others because of the specific contingencies of the empirical engagement and analysis, or because there will always be something that falls beyond the study’s wider ‘frame of reference’.

    Overflowing

    The process of framing invariably generates overflowing, as the actors that come together bring with them entanglements that extend beyond their frame, and which can change with the process of framing. Overflowing implies both the impossibility of total framing, but also the possibility that framing produces entanglements through which it comes to be problematized.

    Performativity, Perform

    This term addresses the ways in which practices produce particular realities or ontologies. How a reality is performed (e.g. the sorts of techniques or arguments that are brought to bear and put into circulation) can also induce others to share this reality.

    Power

    In ANT power is not a term much used. This is because it detracts from the close analysis of how associations are formed. So, rather than observing power being exercised by one actor ‘over’ others, ANT traces the local processes of translation, enrolment, etc. which produce and sustain relations. These relations might evoke power, in the sense that they are ‘hierarchical’, but they can also be subverted at any moment.

    Prescription, Proscription

    Technologies have ‘scripts’ integrated into them which affect what can and cannot be done with those technologies. Technologies thus prescribe or proscribe the behaviours or comportments necessary to ensure that they work. These pre- and pro- scriptions can be subverted, not least by reworking what ‘working’ means for a particular technology.

    Problematization

    To raise issues about an actor’s identity and interests and their realization. By establishing that an actor’s ‘real’ interests are not being met, a technoscientist can enrol that actor to their project through which those interests will indeed be realized.

    Proposition

    The process of composition generates a state of affairs – an assemblage or assembly, say – that can be open or unsettled. At this juncture, such an assemblage or assembly entails a proposition that ‘lures’ other associations (or ‘proposes’ new connections) so that it and its constituent, composed elements might all be modified.

    Purification

    The ongoing process, characteristic of modernity, in which humans and nonhumans are held to be distinct. Purification works to obscure the actual hybridity of all entities, while also facilitating the unrecognized and unchecked proliferation of hybrids.

    Research Event

    A ‘research event’ signals the mutual emergence of researcher and researched through the process of empirical and analytic engagement such that they might no longer be identifiable as researcher and researched, and the research event itself might turn into a totally different sort of event.

    Rhizome

    The rhizome (synonyms include molecular and smooth) denotes a state of an assemblage in which connections between elements are highly promiscuous – any part of the assemblage can associate with any other part however ‘different’ or ‘distant’.

    Scripts

    Scripts are the ‘instructions’ or ‘rules’ inscribed into technologies that must be followed if those technologies are to ‘work’. These often demand (prescribe or proscribe) particular sorts of bodily capacities and comportments.

    Sociomateriality, Sociomaterial

    In the process of ordering (or disordering) associations between elements in a network or assemblage, entities that straddle the human and the nonhuman, the social and the material, need to be deployed. Thus a scientific paper can go about the process of enrolment because it is sociomaterial, because, at its simplest, it is composed of both paper (nonhuman) and text (human).

    Speculation

    An approach to research that assumes research events, researchers and researched might all co-become in unforeseeable ways. The aim of research thus becomes one of exploring – speculating on – these possible becomings. In some cases speculation involves close observation of research events and their ‘accidental’ becomings (e.g. disruptions); in other cases, speculation is based on research events that are designed to facilitate becoming by introducing playfulness or ambiguity into the proceedings.

    Spokesperson

    The spokesperson is the actor who has situated themselves within a network such that they are able to speak on behalf of all the other relevant entities, ideally without contradiction. To become a spokesperson means enrolling other entities who then ideally act according to their allocated roles.

    Technoscience

    This term highlights the heterogeneity of science as it goes about constructing its networks through a multiplicity of activities that include shaping a supportive regulatory landscape, securing funding, doing science, cultivating public support, etc., etc.

    Translation

    To translate is to redefine another’s interests or identity by whatever means possible – textual, social, even coercive – so that they do one’s bidding, or allow one to speak or act on their behalf (as a spokesperson). Through translation, actors become enrolled into an actor-network.

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