Sunday, July 18, 2021

Actor-Network Theory Explained

The actor-network theory  (ANT)  is a sociological approach developed at from the 1980s by Michel Callon , Bruno Latour , Madeleine Akrich and other researchers from the Center for Sociology of Innovation at Mines ParisTech . 

This approach differs from classic sociological theories because it takes into account in its analysis, beyond humans, (“ non-human  ”) objects  and discourses. The latter are also considered as “  actors  ” or “  actants  ”, according to a concept borrowed from AJ Greimas who thus designates any entity without ontological distinction entering into a semiotic process .
Originally, Callon and Latour were interested in the conditions of production of science and, in particular, in the construction of scientific facts in the laboratory. Their epistemological position is radical: they reject externalist , rationalist positions , naturalization ( realism ), sociologization (the scientific fact understood in particular as the result of power games and social factors, a position supported by the Strong Program ( David Bloor , Barry Barnes ) or by Harry Collinsand representatives of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK)). They also distance themselves from postmodernism and deconstruction (the relativism arising from the illusion of the speaker and language games ). By moving away from these positions, they want to put an end to the compartmentalization and reconsider the scientific and human fact according to the multiplicity of the relations which constitute it (relativism known as "relationist"). This conception leads them to reject the approaches which separate the "human" from the "non-human", and consequently, those which separate politics and science (and technologies ) or more broadly nature and society.

For these theorists, the world should not be thought of in terms of social groups, but in terms of a network (in a precise sense which in no way corresponds to that of the Internet network). What makes the social is “association”, the formation of “collectives” and the set of relationships and mediations that hold them together. This conception is intended to be “symmetrical” and everything is then of equal importance for the analysis, whether it is a question of organizational, cognitive, discursive factors or, more generally, of the “non-human” entities which enter into the composition of the collectives. .

These relationships are established through an operation of "translation" or chains of translations (successive transformations) by which the actors (individual or collective) pose as spokespersons and translate the will of collectives, also attempting to enlist new ones. actors. Likewise, a scientific fact results from a series of translations (instruments necessary for its realization, scientific articles, laboratory materials, grants, etc.) which also reveal the network in which it takes on meaning and is stabilized. Knowledge circulates by successive “translations”, which does not introduce any discontinuity in the social space, but rather a progressive adaptation of knowledge, the certainty of which can always be called into question by controversies.

In this way, the social is understood as being an effect caused by the successive interactions of heterogeneous actors, that is to say of the actor-network. Every actor is a network and vice versa. The action of an entity of the network entails the modification of the latter; any action involving the entire network has an impact on the components of the network. Consequently, the action does not have a precise source, it always involves a series of entities and mobilizes the collective force that they represent. The relative stability of an actor-network can collapse at any time if certain actants are removed from the network. For example, if we remove the phone or the banks in question, the result will be a destabilization of the network. Likewise, the actor-network is both local and global, depending on its size or length; it can be both a micro and a macro-actor since its size varies over time and depends on the translation operations of its spokespersons.