Actor-network theory

From Academic Kids

Actor-network theory, sometimes abbreviated to ANT, is a sociological theory developed by Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law. It is distinguished from other network theories in that an actor-network contains not merely people, but objects and organisations. These are collectively referred to as actors, or sometimes actants.



The Heterogenous Network

The primary tenet of actor-network theory is the concept of the heterogenous network. That is, a network containing many dissimilar elements. These coextensive networks comprise of both social and technical parts. Moreover, the social and technical are treated as inseparable by ANT. When buying produce from a supermarket, for example, the actor-network involved would include the purchaser and the cashier, as well as the cash register, the money and the produce involved. It also includes other, less obvious objects, such as the clothes the purchaser wears, without which they would most likely not be served. The task of trying to identify all of the heterogeneous elements in an actor-network like this can be difficult, and is ultimately up to the discretion of the researcher. This is known as the problem of selection.

Actor-network theory claims that any actor, whether person, object (including computer software, hardware, and technical standards), or organisation, is equally important to a social network. As such, societal order is an effect caused by the smooth running of an actor network. This order begins to break down when certain actors are removed. For example, the removal of telephones, banks or the president may all result in significant break-downs in social order.

The Overlapping Stages of ANT

1. Inscription

Technology embodies the beliefs, practices, relations etc of the society it emerges from

2. Translation

When the actor-network is actually created, and when actors other than the primary actor become involved. A powerful actor is able to translate another's interests to his own. This is the stage when negotiation takes place.

Michel Callon defined 4 moments of translation:


What is the problem that needs to be solved? Who are the relevant actors? Delegates need to be identified that will represent groups of actors. So, a union head represents workers or an MP represents his constituency. During problematisation, the primary actor tries to establish itself as an obligatory passage point (OPP) between the other actors and the network, so that it becomes indispensible.


Getting the actors interested and negotiating the terms of their involvement. The primary actor works to convince the other actors that the roles it has defined them are acceptable.


Actors accept the roles that have been defined for them during interessement

Mobilisation of allies

Do the delegate actors in the network adequately represent the masses? If so, enrolment becomes active support.

3. Framing

As the key issues and debates are resolved within a network, technologies can become stabilised over time.


If taken to its logical conclusion, nearly any actor can be considered merely a sum of other, smaller actors. An automobile is an example of a complex system. It contains many electronic and mechanical components, all of which are essentially hidden from view to the driver, who simply deals with the car as a single object. This effect is known as punctualisation, and is similar to the idea of abstraction in object-oriented programming.

When an actor network breaks down, the punctualisation effect tends to cease as well. In the automobile example above, a non-working engine would cause the driver to become aware of the car as a collection of parts rather than just a vehicle capable of transporting him or her from place to place. This can also occur when elements of a network act contrarily to the network as a whole. In his 'Pandora's Hope' Latour likens depunctualization to the opening of Pandora's box.


In the above examples, 'social order' and 'functioning car' come into being through the successful interactions of their respective actor-networks, and actor-network theory refers these creations as tokens or quasi-objects which are passed between actors within the network.

As the token is increasingly transmitted or passed through the network, it becomes increasingly punctualized and also increasingly reified. When the token is decreasingly transmitted, or when an actor fails to transmit the token (e.g., the oil pump breaks), punctualization and reification are decreased as well.


Actor-Netork Theory is useful in the exploration of why technologies, scientific theories, and/or social endeavors succeed or fail as the direct result of changes in their network integrity. In such an analysis, the technology or theory is positioned as the token.

In an early example of ANT entitled 'Aramis: The Love of Technology,' Latour described the crumbling of a network as the reason for failure of a particular technology (point-to-point public transport). Most often used to describe the demise of a quasi-object, ANT can also be used to examine how some quasi-objects (e.g. evolution, gravity, social norms) have been extremely successful due to their robust networks.


Much of the controversy surrounding actor-network theory is caused by its lack of distinction between people and objects. A commonly held view is that people are fundamentally different from animals, and also fundamentally different from objects. However, although only humans can purposefully act, their actions are strongly influenced by non-human actors.

ANT has also been criticised as amoral. Bijker has responded to this criticim by stating that the amorality of ANT is not a necessity. Moral and political positions are possible, but one must first describe the network before taking up such positions.

Another criticism is that it suggests that all actors are equal within the network. It does not account for pre-existing structures, such as power, but instead sees these structures as emerging from the actions of actors within the network. Power emerges with the ability of an actor to align other actors to its interests.

Case studies which use ANT are often highly descriptive, and can sometimes seem pointless. ANT calls for judgement calls from the researcher as to what actors are important within a network, and which are not. Otherwise, it can be an endless process - six degrees of separation - we are all networked to one another - who are the most important in the construction of a particular technology?

In a workshop called "Actor Network and After", Bruno Latour was noted to say that there are four things wrong with actor-network theory: "actor", "network", "theory" and the hyphen.

See also

External Links


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools