learning and teaching actor-network theory

Actor-network theory (ANT) is one of the most interesting and controversial recent-ish movements at the intersection of science and technology studies (STS) and social theory. (By recent-ish, I mean that it’s too new to be included in some “contemporary” social theory syllabi which stop in the 1970s or 1980s and also that the earliest writers in the movement are still active). ANT is probably most famous for its claims about the agency of non-humans actors, which is an example of its assertion of several radical forms of “symmetry”. On a few occasions, I’ve been asked for suggestions about to understand actor-network theory, or what to assign when teaching it. The following is a list of some of the pieces that have been most useful to me, and which together serve as a pretty good overview of the approach along with some pieces I think teach particularly well. There are other existing exhaustive resources and some nice overviews with extensive bibliographies (some of which are mentioned below). My goal here is not to duplicate those resources, but just to idiosyncratically note which pieces have “clicked” for me and might perhaps work for you as you try to read up on ANT or look for readings to assign in a course or add to a prelim list.

Overviews

There are two overviews that I’ve found useful, both chapters in larger volumes:

Sismondo, Sergio. 2010. An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies. Chapter 8, Actor-Network Theory.

Lezaun, Javier. 2017. “Actor-Network Theory.” In Social Theory Now. Preprint available here.
 
Sismondo’s text is a pretty standard introduction to the field of STS and his chapter introduces ANT in that context. In contrast, Lezaun’s chapter appears as part of an excellent overview collection covering contemporary trends in social theory and is aimed more at theoretically-minded sociologists rather than budding STS scholars.

Classic Statements

The early influential ANT authors were prolific essayists. They also wrote several key books. If you’re going to do a deep dive, the books are essential (especially “Laboratory Life”, “Science in Action”, and “We Have Never Been Modern.”). But if you’re looking for an accessible introduction to the approach, I think some of the essays are a better starting point and especially better for understanding how ANT intersects with questions of politics and power (which it’s sometimes accused of ignoring). I’ve left off the famous “scallops” essay because, while super important for introducing some of the main ANT concepts like “obligatory passage point”, I don’t think it reads/teaches that well, though I just linked it here so in a sense I kind of did include it? Anyway, here are my favorite three:

Callon, Michel and Bruno Latour. 1981. “Unscrewing the Big Leviathan: How Actors Macro-Structure Reality and How Sociologists Help Them to Do So.” Advances in Social Theory and Methodology: Toward an Integration of Micro-and Macro-Sociologies 277–303.

It’s often said that ANT has a “flat” ontology. This is sort of true and sort of misleading. ANT is very interested in questions of scale and how actors become big, rather than assuming that certain things are by nature bigger than others. This article is useful for understanding ANT’s approach to the state and organizations, and in some sense for understanding how one can take insights from ethnomethodology (one of ANT’s big inspirations) and use them to make sense of “macro-structure.”

Latour, Bruno. 1983. “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World.” Science Observed 141–70.

Probably the clearest answer to the question, how does ANT think about power? And why, in particular, are laboratories sites of importance in contemporary political life?

Johnson, Jim. 1988. “Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer.” Social Problems 35(3):298–310.

Perhaps the most classic question in social and political theory is “what holds society together?” For ANT, part of the answer is technology. That is, technology is society made durable (this essay has that as its punchier title but I think the earlier one noted here is a bit clearer). Latour gives lots of clever and accessible examples. Oh and he has a fun riff on why he published the article under the American pseudonym that will be sure to amuse any student annoyed at American sociology’s parochialism.

Clarifications

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social. “On the Difficulty of Being an ANT: An Interlude in the Form of a Dialog.”

While Latour’s 2005 book is billed as an “introduction to actor-network theory”, the text as a whole is not very introductory. It is usefully placed in dialog with classical social theory (especially Durkheim), which makes it teachable in a graduate theory context, but honestly having tried it I don’t think it does the best job of introducing the ANT approach as a whole (compared to the essays above). That said, the short dialog chapter between Latour and a fictionalized student is very helpful and clarifying about what it might mean to actually do an ANT-inflected project.

Sayes, Edwin. 2014. “Actor–Network Theory and Methodology: Just What Does It Mean to Say That Nonhumans Have Agency?” Social Studies of Science 44(1):134–49.

Sayes goes through various versions of the “non-human agency” question to try to understand just what sort of claim ANT is making. Super helpful and somewhat critical. 

Applications & Extensions

Mitchell, Timothy. 2002. Rule of Experts. Chapter 1, “Can the Mosquito Speak?” and Chapter 3, “The Character of Calculability.”

Mitchell uses ANT to make sense of the failures of development and expertise in Egypt. The first chapter focuses on the Aswan dam and on mosquitoes, and is probably the clearest example of using ANT to make an empirical argument. The third chapter looks at the problem of colonial maps and, among other things, how the physical properties of maps themselves (like how they warped from heat and humidity) affected their usefulness as tools of governance (including the wonderful line, “He cannot keep reality out of his representation”).

Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The Body Multiple.

Mol tries to answer the question, what is atherosclerosis? And is it the same thing at home, in the clinic, in the operating room, and in the pathology lab? What does it mean if it’s not? The book is weird and wonderful and not to everyone’s taste – the top half of each page is ethnographic observation while the bottom is literature review and theorizing, making it a kind of academic Choose Your Own Adventure to read. But I love it as both a piece of writing and a place to think through ANT-ish ideas in the context of bodies and medicine.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

3 thoughts on “learning and teaching actor-network theory”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.