I don’t think I understand actor-network-theory (ANT).
The whole theory rests on the idea of generalised symmetry, where human and non-human actants are considered to have equal agency in the actor-network. However ‘agency’ seems to me to necessarily include intentionality at some point. How can humans and non-humans possibly have the same level of agency?
In an effort to understand, I had a look at Latour’s ‘clarifications’ (1996). Part of his response to this question of agency is that:
How can any ‘element’ become ‘strategic’ through any process, unless there is an intention behind the strategy? Describing the theory Bardini says that in the process of translation “delegates…co-opt each other in pursuit of individual and collective objectives”. However Latour (1996) says “an ‘actor’ in AT is a semiotic definition – an actant – that is, something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor humans in general” (p.7).
So, what drives or motivates the objectives, strategies, co-opting?
Latour (and others) make repeated reference to the ‘granting’ of action. On the basis of my understanding, the only person in a position to grant that status is the person applying ANT. Surely this defeats the purpose of the principle of generalised symmetry; humans assigning the status of mediator, as opposed to intermediatory.
Bardini (2013) says that “the crucial difference is that only actors are able to put the actants in circulation in the system” – if the researcher decides who/what is an ‘actor’, then humans are implicitly given more agency.
More broadly, humans just are subject to relatively hierarchical structures of power – which is something ANT seems to reject. Latour suggests the network is not “bigger”, but “longer” (1996, p.5) – this seems semantic; the point is that there exist relatively stable networks which have greater coercive power.
ANT claims that it only “describes” the network, not “how” or “why” it is the way it is (Wikipedia, 2014). Without consideration of power structures though, this seems to me to be akin to itemising all the discreet components of a car, and how they interlock to make a ‘car’, but ignoring the fact there needs to be a driver for the car to be relevant. So, I think ANT is in a way useful, but as Latour says (perhaps with slightly different intentions) “In order to obtain the effects of distance, proximity, hierachies, connectedness, outsiderness and surfaces, an enormous supplementary work has to be done” (1996, p.6).
I am a big fan of the ‘network’ idea. Manuel Castells’ related work on “the network society” which suggests there’s a multitude of interconnected networks forming part of a larger network makes much more sense to me because although “a network has no centre, just nodes” (2005, p.3), it still accepts that networks, albeit transient/fluid, have some form of power structure. Castells’ theory holds that “the ability of networks to introduce new actors and new contents in the process of social organisation, with relative independence of the power centres, increased over time with technological change” (2005, p.4). Castells acknowledges that non-human elements can have agency in the network – finding a position between technological determinism and social determinism – but without the seemingly mutually exclusive ideas of generalised symmetry and the source of agency that I just can’t pin down.
Latour, B (1996), ‘On actor-network theory: A few clarifications plus more than a few complications’, Soziale Welt, vol. 47, pp. 369-381 < http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/P-67%20ACTOR-NETWORK.pdf>, accessed 20 August 2014.
Ryder, Martin (n.d.) ’What is Actor-Network Theory?’, <http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~mryder/itc/ant_dff.html>, accessed 19 August 2014.
‘Actor Network Theory’, Wikipedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actor-network_theory> accessed 19 August 2014
Castells, M (2005). Excerpts from ‘Informationalism, networks, and the network society: A theoretical blueprint’ From The Network Society: A cross cultural perspective. Cheltenham, UK, Edward Elgar, pp. 3-7 & 36-45.