Law, J. (2009). The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, chapter Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics, pages 141–158. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.
Law is careful to state up front that ANT is not a theory, and is instead a set of descriptive practices. It can be defined in the abstract, but it is best understood by looking at how it works in practice. Perhaps this is where Nicolini got the idea of the toolkit from, which eschews theory, and places ANT firmly in a practitioner space:
As a form, one of several, of material semiotics, it is best understood as a toolkit for telling interesting stories about, and interfering in, those relations. More profoundly, it is a sensibility to the messy practices of relationality and materiality of the world. (p. 141-142)
Law mentions that key to understanding ANT is the idea of translation, that was first introduced by Michel Serres and used by Latour and Callon in their early work on ANT. Translation is making two words equivalent, but since no two words are equivalent translation is about betrayal or shifting and linking words. He situates ANT as a scaled down, or empirical version of what Foucault calls discourses or epistemes. Law compares translation to Deleuze’s idea of nomadic philosophy, and draws a parallel between Deleuze’s assemblage or agencements and ANT. Just as an aside it’s interesting to think about how this philosophical work involving networks was germinating in France in the 1970s and 1980s and then we see the Web itself being created in the late 1980s.
Here are some features of Actor Network Theory as originally conceived:
Material Durability: social arrangements delegated into non-bodily physical form tend to hold their shape better than those that simply depend on face-to-face interaction
Strategic Durability: actor network conception of strategy can be understood more broadly to include teleologically ordered patterns of relations indifferent to human intentions
Discursive Durability: discourses define conditions of possibility, making some ways of ordering webs of relations easier and others difficult or impossible
And then here are some features of what Law calls the New Material Semiotic a more “polytheistic” version of ANT that he groups under the Deleuzian heading Diaspora. Interestingly he cites Star (1990) as offering one of the earliest critiques of ANT, from a feminist perspective.
Performativity: the social is not constructed, it is enacted or performed, and its in these performances that they can be understood and studied.
Multiplicity: a given phenomenon can be understood as a confluence of practices, that aren’t different perspectives on the same phenomenon, but are actually different practices that may be coordinated for some duration Mol (2002). Aside: it’s kind of interesting that Mol has been one of the points of connection between my independent study on practice theory and my ethnographic methods class this semester.
Fluidity: the ability of objects and practices to mutate, change shape, reconfigure and persist.
Realities and Goods: networks create multiple overlapping ethical realities
To describe the real is always an ethically charged act. But, and this is the crucial point, the two are only partially connected: goods and reals cannot be reduced to each other. An act of political will can never, by itself, overturn the endless and partially connected webs that enact the real. Deconstruction is not enough. Indeed, it is trivial (Latour, 2004). The conclusion is inescapable: as we write we have a simultaneous responsibility both to the real and to the good. Such is the challenge faced by this diasporic material semiotics. To create and recreate ways of working in and on the real while simultaneously working well in and on the good.
Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225–248.
Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Duke University Press.
Nicolini, D. (2012). Practice theory, work, and organization: An introduction. Oxford University Press.
Star, S. L. (1990). Power, technology and the phenomenology of conventions: On being allergic to onions. The Sociological Review, 38(S1), 26–56.