Actor network theory

Actor network theory (ANT) is a misnomer, for it offers not so much a theory as a method. Analytically, it owes a great deal to the tradition of ethnomethodology that was initiated by Garfinkel (1967), in as much as it starts from the premise that ordi- nary actors in everyday situations must already be skilled and accomplished methodologists if they are able to manage the complexity that everyday life pre- sents. Similarly to ethnomethodology, ANT is concerned to research how the actors do what they actually do. It does this by studying the mechanics of power as the actors develop them as they construct and maintain actor networks. An actor net- work not only includes human actors but can also include non-human actors. Hence, the networks of everyday life are invariably heterogeneous: they include machines, such as automobiles, mobile phones, and PDAs, software such as Plaxo and LinkedIn, as well as other people. ANT is concerned to trace the transforma- tion of these heterogeneous networks, how they are constituted, how they emerge and come into being, how they are maintained, how they compete with other net- works, and how they are extended over space and time.

ANT understands an organization as a network of entities that do things; the network is constituted by the entities that connect themselves in the network. Both actor and network constitute, define and redefine each other. Thus, an actor net- work is not necessarily enclosed within the organization, nor do the people or posi- tions in an organization chart necessarily describe it. Both organizations and actors may be thought of as being indistinguishable from the networks in which they are constituted, where they seek to enroll, mobilize and translate each other to what they constitute as their interests. Of course, from a power perspective, we are all engaged in these activities all the time, so power necessarily resides in the dynamic social relations constituted in the network. ANT thinks of these relations in terms of performances, rather as Goffman does, where actors enact what they take to be what they want to be taken to be, with all the room for error, ambiguity and con- fusion that such performance entails. To try and achieve their objectives, actors in networks have to try and problematize issues, arouse others’ interest, enroll their energies, and mobilize the capabilities enrolled; they seduce, induce, translate, and otherwise persuade others of the rightness, correctness, and appropriateness of the courses of action that they persuade these others are being undertaken, such that these others accept the projects and allow themselves to be enrolled in them. Of course, these others are probably doing the same things in terms of their projects, so it should be expected that, despite blandishments, resistance will often occur.

One of the ways in which politics ensues in the networks is by seeking to create interest relations where the different projects of different actors become mutu- ally implicated, such that a shared interest emerges as an outcome of the dynamic processes that occur in the constitution of the network. The notion of interest carries no ontological baggage associated with discourses of ‘real’ interests and ‘false consciousness’. It merely describes what the actors constitute.

Within an actor network, the multiple and conflicting interests of various actors become translated and inscribed, embodied and embedded, in material artifacts, such as texts, programs, skills, dispositions, machines – all those phenomena on which the achievement of our agency depends (Callon 1991: 143). Where stable patterns are established between such phenomena and the processes of translating and inscribing multiple others, we may say that an actor network has been estab- lished (Callon 1991). At this stage the network begins to take on durable qualities. The dynamic of network formation is that the entities comprising it require the network to be able to perform as those entities (Holmstrom and Stalder 2001).

Inscription is perhaps the most important way in which an actor network is ‘translated’. Inscriptions may take place through documentation, reportage, mod- eling, programming, formal discussion, argumentation, strategic planning, hierar- chy, relationship formations – almost any way of persuading others. All these can serve as the means whereby meanings are inscribed in a network and, as such, rep- resent the truths of that network (Holmstrom and Stalder 2001). Through inscrip- tion, actors embed agendas into artifacts that then play a role in the network. Networks are small zones of stability amidst the overwhelming complexity and confusion of everyday life; indeed, Callon (1986) suggests that a network relies for its stability and its continued existence on maintaining a degree of order in the ways in which it keeps at bay the complexity that always threatens to overwhelm it. Allen (2003) notes that different modalities may be engaged in the construction of complex actor networks: they may be networks of domination; they may achieve legitimacy and be accorded authority; they may eschew the necessity for authority and seek to operate wholly through coercion, being induced to do something, per- haps through fear of the alternatives or expectation of the rewards. They might seek to manipulate or seduce the other: when manipulated, the others are misled; when seduced, they are intrigued, sensually involved, and emotionally ready to be com- promised. There is thus great freedom in contemporary forms of power: our present is a complex reality with a large and varied set of materials and technologies to con- stitute individuals, a relational palette with plenty of options for composition. While all these may be examples of power, they are examples of different modalities.

A central idea concerns the spatially constitutive nature of the particular ways in which different modalities of power take effect (Allen 2003: 94–102). The two major dimensions of spatiality are reach and intensity. Power may be either more or less instrumentally hierarchical or collaboratively associational, but is only ever as effective as its effects – not the resources that it can deploy. That there is paint on the palette means little until it is creatively deployed on the canvas – in this case the canvases we co-construct and co-destruct as lives and times that are lived, shared and denied. Reach and intensity may be achieved either by power consti- tuting a field of social relations through traversing space in some way or, alterna- tively, by the instrumentality of power dissolving space through technologies of governmentality, such as those of surveillance, virtuality and so on. It is important, however, to remember that the modalities of power that can operate on the self are many and varied (including at least authority, inducement, seduction, coercion, and manipulation) and thus should not be reduced to any essential category, such as domination. These modalities may all crosscut, of course, and those involved may not always be clear which they are actually being enrolled in or are offering:

Acts of authority and seduction may well play across one another … acts of authority may mutate into outright coercion should recognition be withdrawn; or such acts may overlap with the effects of institutional domination as options are narrowed down and fixed to eliminate political choice. Seduction as a peculiarly indeterminate mode of power may even be eclipsed by a more determinate form. (2003: 121)

Power is not a force that intrudes on a stable situation from the outside so much as a way of talking about the structuring of social action in normal ways (Falzon 1998; Heiskala 2001). The general idea is that rather than power being something exer- cised between two or more conflicting combatants or adversaries divided over some issue, one to the other, it is ‘more a question of ongoing and active structur- ing of the possible field of action of the others – a process that is always open to resistance, transformation and renegotiation’ as Peltonen and Tikkanen (2005: 275) put it. Together with Munro (1999), they have contributed explicit ANT accounts of power to the literature that draw directly on the works of Foucault.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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