notes: Dagny Stuedal on actors in networks
[19/4: freshly completed post after battery died yesterday]Dagny’s doing a post. doc. at IMK and is a folklorist and a cultural historian, and she’s going to talk about actors and actants in networks. Akt¯r-nettverksteori, is this actor-network theory? Latour etc. – ah, this is the ANT acronym I’ve been hearing all day, and it’s different from Granovetter’s social networks.
She starts by showing Paul Baran drawings of centralised, decentralised and distributed networks. (Third time today!) Actor-network theory is actually about network building – how are the bridges between networks created/built?
Bruno Latour is one of the founders of this theory, and he’s currently discarding the term “network” which is too vague, he says, and replacing it with alliances.
The difference between ANT (actor-network theory) and the social network theory is that ANT doesn’t differentiate between human and non-human actors, because both are seen as having equal importance in the network.
Latour: symmetry between researcher and test tube (human and object) because the test tube also influences the results of the experiment.
Another difference: ANT isn’t a theory, it’s an approach, a perspective. It doesn’t explain how networks work, but it gives you a set of concepts with which to understand empirical findings and (I suppose) what to look for.
It’s an ethnomethodology (I think she said) which is a methodology for researching things you don’t quite know what are. I think. I may have gotten that wrong.
The assumption is that the actors know what they’re doing and we as researchers should follow them and learn from them. Should therefore not study the system but the actors.
The difference between ANT and Kuhn’s theory of communities of scholars who come to a consensus on a paradigm is that Kuhn’s paradigm is seen as stable for a period, after which there’s a real shift to a new paradigm, whereas ANT sees scientific concepts and “paradigms” (which isn’t a word they’d use) and constantly shifting as alliances shift. There is no stability. There are echos here of Feienhaben (?) and the idea that science is based on chance.
Alliances have no insides or outsides, because an actor is either in this network or in another network (which is somehow distantly or closely connected with “this” network?) The network or the alliance has no edges.
ANT differentiates between the role and the person or object playing the role. The person (or object) is an actor, the role is the actant. Based on Greimas, structuralist narratology. Dagny suggests that in those diagrams of networks, the actant/actor is actually not the dot/node, as most suggest, but the line between nodes, the connection. She doesn’t embellish this idea.
ANT has a vocabulary which is useful for analysing alliances and networks. It’s developed to look at how a single actant/actor establishes herself/himself/itself in an alliance rather than as how a whole network works. (The idea of a “whole” network is probably not one ANT would like anyway.)
Key terms are: (the words I use may not be the current terms since I translated from Norwegian, so check this)
- Translation: (oversettelse) The integration of opposing views. This integration strengthens the network.
- Inscription: (innskriving) Joining a network. Often you’ll agree to take some responsibility, you’re willing to compromise on certain things, in order to be part of a network.
- Adjustment: (justering) Compromises, changes of one’s argument.
- Compulsory placement point (?): (obligatorisk plasseringspunkt) How a translation is established as imperative – you have to do X before you can join. [I suppose you have to add a link to a webring in order to join the webring, and that would be a compulsory placement point] The function of these is to limit noise and spam from people who aren’t really interested in the wellbeing of the network.
Wonderfully, Dagny even provided us with a list of the most common objections to ANT. How’s that for convenient?
- It sets up an idea of networks where successful networks are those that are stable and have good translation. This ignores marginalisation and (missed hte next bit).
- Feminists criticise ANT because it sees power as a resource and doesn’t provide tools for seeing power as domination, marginalisation.
- The idea of symmetry between human and non-human actants leads to ethical problems. Terje gave an example: For instance, a common argument is that ANT encourages the idea of the murderer who can say that “It wasn’t me who killed him, it was the gun”, because according to ANT, the gun would be an actant with equal importance in the network as the person who fired the gun. Dagny said that ANT peoples’ counter to this would be that ANT is an analytical approach and a vocabulary, not an ethical system, and that value judgements can’t be based on ANT. She says a more useful example of symmetry is where you hit your thumb with a hammer by mistake, and while it’s easy to say that’s your fault, it might be more interesting to see it using the ANT vocubulary in which case you might say that the hammer is an actor that was ill-designed for the task or too heavy and that that made the alliance between you and the hammer ill-fated. It’s useful, Dagny said, to be able to see that technology or organisations can make us act in ways we didn’t want to act. I guess one would need to know more about ANT to really understand this, but anyway, the symmetry between people and objects or organisations is something that a lot of people object to about this approach.
- The strategy of following a single actor is criticised because you end up only looking at how an individual makes as many connections (alliances) as possible and thus gains (or loses) power. It’s all rather Machiavellian. There’s no discussion of why a particular actant is chosen.
Dagny concludes that while many of these criticisms are valid, there are also many aspects of ANT that are useful.
4 thoughts on “notes: Dagny Stuedal on actors in networks”
If you’re interested, Latour’s website is crammed full of texts, but his clearest, funnest piece on ANT is ‘A prologue in form of a dialog between a Student and his (somewhat) Socratic Professor’, which features him as a believably exasperating prof discussing ANT with a student.
If you are interested in ANT and Latour, then John Law (at Lancaster Uni in England) is also a good ‘actor to follow’.
I must confess that I experience a sense of extreme theoretical hubris in the Latour/ANT things I have seen.
For example, in this article on the Ladbroke Grove train accident in England, John Law passes himself as an instant expert on train safety:
The conclusion is that partially connected, multiply ordered, ambiguous and not very
coherent systems are usually more robust. And the corollary is that if we find that we are
proposing technologies that demand tight systems then we need to stop and think. This the
ultimate lesson of the Ladbroke Grove tragedy. It is that we have unwisely created a world
which demands coherent systems.
But I guess such hubris is an inevitable effect of every theory that claims to explain everything?
I don’t know that I’m very likely to actually use ANT, but I’m very happy to have acquired an overview of what the idea is and an idea of what I’d do if I wanted to investigate it further.
From what I heard between Dagny’s lines, the hubris sounds rather likely, yes… Thanks for the example, Jesper.