Actor-Network Theory

Communication scholar Grant Kien on relational materiality, messy networks, and power as a social phenomenon

videos | June 2, 2016

I’m going to talk about actor-network theory and relational materiality. A few terms you are going to hear me use are technology, artifact, token, and material object. These terms might be interchangeable as I go through. If you hear them the way that I’m using them is similarly throughout.

The first issue that I would like to talk about is the maintenance of cultural consistency across time. This is very important to the concept of relational materiality because it explains why we want to make things material. We want to make our culture to outlast us and in doing this embedding of practice into material object we can achieve this maintenance of doing things the same way over and over again. What actually happens with actor-network theory in this perspective is that we are inscribing practices into our technologies. This means that there is always a certain way that you have to do things in order to use, for example, even the camera that’s being used to video this right now.

This becomes a routine and then routine itself becomes a cultural practice. It’s because of this relationship between the material object and the cultural practice that we are able to maintain some kind of consistency across culture in time.

Another example we might think of is eating. We have many different foods that we might eat at different times in human history, but there tends to be some consistency in how we go about eating over time. Some of the cultural norms are that we gather together to eat with other people, we tend to have, it varies by culture, but we tend to have certain utensils that we use to eat, certain arrangements of the food and so on. This is really something that transcends each generation, gets passed along. Part of that is the embedding of the cultural practice into the material objects themselves. So we can look throughout our history, especially with our family history of special objects that get passed along, that often entail certain rituals that we would maintain across time.

The concept was described as mattering, and this is using the term matter both as the material aspect of matter, but also the verb to make something matter. This term was first used by James Hay in 2001. He used it to describe the creation of media to make both the material artifact and the symbolic meaning at the same time. Physically making something present, but also at the same time making it matter to us in an emotional sense. This embeds the regimes of the behavior into the material elements of the phenomena. In his case, he was concerned with media.

We could look at television and the way that it both reproduced spatial arrangements of the kind of campfire storytelling around the central light-giving object and at the same time changed it. We were then listening to the object itself instead of the storyteller who would have been in that position previously.

There is some change that accompanies this, but the phenomenological aspect of it embeds the behavior into the material itself.

So the material object, then the artifact, does some work and it doesn’t just sit there as a benign object. It works symbolically to convey us meaning, it gives us a sense of the alliance so that we can count on it to help us and to maintain our sense of togetherness. It also creates belonging and sameness. Concepts like what belongs with us, what does not. Otherness is what belongs away from us. And it also stabilizes our everyday life with meaning through routinized ritualistic performances. The material objects then make visible, the conceptual, the things that we think about. These are the symbolic categories that we use to organize our world. Even in thinking about the food example, we have different genres of food, and we have different foods for different times of day. We have accompanying material artifacts that go with each of those kinds of symbolic categories. It also provides the appearance of depth to what is otherwise purely aesthetic phenomena in performativity. Instead of it just being people eating, the meal becomes a very recognizable symbolic practice, and in America in particular we might think about Thanksgiving or the Christmas dinner as a very symbolic practice that is very bound up with the material objects.

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Actor-network theory then is a method of mapping how the technologies and artifacts and material objects are participating in our everyday lives. And participate is a keyword here because it means that the objects are acting with us. As I mentioned before, they are not just sitting there benignantly. Early actor-network theory discoveries included the exposing of this myth of neutrality, that somehow we could be neutral in our judgments and our observations, in particular with science. Beaker and Law explained that work takes place in what they call messy networks. Messy networks construct both the products and the subjects. The process is never really linear and logical, there is always some kind of interaction going back and forth. Callon and Latour work on this premise that categorical dualisms are theoretical and not essential. This kind of idea that the Cartesian mind body split for example, they would reject that idea. You can’t have one without the other and in sociology what that meant is macro and micro phenomena are not essentially different, they are not separatable. They have to be part of the same thing, whether we’re looking at something from a macro or micro perspective.

They invoked the term translation to describe this. Translation for them produces phenomena through the ongoing work of many actors. This concept required different perspective in how we observe and study this. They outlaid three methodological principles. For sociology of translation they suggested that there should be agnostic observation that the person doing this study should not believe that absolutes are possible. There should be no foundation. So what you see happening is what is actually to be reported. Also conflicting viewpoints and arguments should be explained in the same terms to maintain generalized symmetry. This means that you shouldn’t change the language that’s being used in order to describe the phenomenon. Whatever the participants are saying is in itself the description of what’s happening.

There is also a principle of free association with the distinctions between neutral and social phenomena behind, that there is nothing neutral, that everything is social.

There is a rejection of the priori categorization that allows actors to define and to associate the elements of their world according to their own language. Kalin described translation as a process before being a result. This is built on the notion of translation to explain that translation projects this deceptive appearance of essential definitions and that the distinctions are never actually so definitive or distinct. Even what I am saying right now is a translation of actor-network theory. It’s certainly not my body of work and what I’m doing in this moment is standing as the translator of all of this effort of other people and other actors within the network.

He went on to describe that translation is the mechanism by which the social and natural worlds progressively take form. The result is a situation in which certain entities control others. This expresses a path from concept to materiality and then there is a critical concern that comes up with power because of this entity controlling others. Power then, in actor-network theory, is a very interesting concept. It’s the effect of the performance. The effect is produced by associating entities together. This is different than how a lot of others conceptualized power because having power is having the potential to associate entities together. This is possibly referred to as power in potentia, but it’s not having an object.

Using power is actually having others perform for your benefit. It’s not exerting yourself. Power in that sense is anesthetic illusion.

Latour then explained that power moves attention to everyday practices. These things are called power tokens and are enacted and passed along. Instead of the idea that the power is something that an individual is exerting, power is actually the movement of these tokens through the network. He explained that the force that instigates the movement sends it on its way. It could originate in another mechanical apparatus or with people, but then there is inertia. That means that it will travel freely as long as nothing opposes it, so this is Newton’s law in fact. The medium that the token travels through is a network of actors that reshape and transform the token as they pass it along. This is how things change them in a material form, but they don’t change them very often and very fast, because these objects can be very durable. Power is always the illusion that people get when they are obeyed and it’s a consequence, not an origin. So materiality then is a part of the process. The translation is the performance of relationships constituting that process and the study of relationships then is what actor-network theory is concerned about.

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Allies are recruited in various ways to create the appearance of having strength when ally will lean on other allies to receive a temporary boost. But there is no opposition, only rearrangement, and there’s no equality. So the struggle is constant. Other actors don’t just fall silent, they continue to struggle to have their voices heard. The dominating voice then justifies itself as democratic, which is that it enunciates what the network is demanding of it. So we can’t try to separate society from that, which comprises it and makes it durable. It’s all part of the same society, there are social and non-social elements, but society is not what holds us together, it’s what is actually held together.

In the methodology, society can be made tacit by listing practices, but there’s a paradox here, because technically it’s impossible to list all of the practices. In practice though, we can actually create a definitive list of the practices we observe. So society is defined by the practices of actors. Latour explains that the notion of power should be abandoned and attention should be turned to the stuff of which society is made. Actor-network theory is against essentialism, and it reveals that arbitrary orderings can be otherwise. In other words, the world doesn’t have to be the way that it appears to us. Explanations of network assemblage are prone to Machiavellian and managerial answers, but this approach doesn’t translate the experience of being marginal or accounting for non-strategic orderings or things that are not assimilatable. So that which is taken to be natural form is actually produced in a spatial network.

Material culture matters because we make it matter, and it’s impossible to separate materiality from culture. Actor-network theory is non-hierarchical understandings of everyday life; see culture as performance and the effects of performance. Authority makes language appear like it’s singular, but this is an illusion. It makes it seem like what I’m saying is a definition, that’s just an appearance. The multiplicity of lived experience problematizes the fantasy of singularity and there is no escaping from here to there, physical to metaphysical. As the network, we are already everywhere that we can be right now. Audience then must work for their own escape into or from the entelechy of the text, plus rearranging the network as an act of mattering. In other words, it’s up to the listener to take what I have said here and use it for whatever purposes they can arrange.

PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Communication, California State University East Bay
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