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Actor-Network Theory: Objects and Actants, Networks and Narratives

First draft, August 2015
Actor-Network Theory: Objects and Actants, Networks and Narratives
For Technology and World Politics: An Introduction, edited by Daniel R. McCarthy,
Abingdon: Routledge, forthcoming 2016
Christian Bueger, Cardiff University
Jan Stockbruegger, Brown University
At the heart of the renewed interest in the role of technology in global politics, and the
intensifying conversation between the discipline of International Relations (IR) and Science
and Technology Studies (STS) isa distinct approach: Actor-Network Theory (hereafter: ANT).
ANT is an approach that has been developed in STS from the 1980s as an alternative for
studying the making of scientific facts, objects, and technologies. ANT is widely known for its
unique take on technological objects and the idea to give themequal status to humans. Several
overlapping concerns led to the development of the approach. Theoretically it was inspired by
semiotics and literature theory, in particular the work of Gabriel Tarde and Michel Serres, but
it was alsoan attempt to advancepost-structuralist ideas, as we find them expressed for instance
in the work of Michel Foucault (Law 2009). In methodological terms ANT was influenced by
ethno-methodology and its interest in the everyday and practical activities. ANT is an
established approach in STS, yet it is one which is continuously under construction and revision
in the light of empirical problems. Although ANT is somewhat prominent and often seen as an
emblem of STS achievements, one should not equate ANT and STS, since, as the other chapters
in this volume document, STS is a much richer and diverse field. ANT is best known for its
claim to take materiality seriously. But as our introduction shows, ANT is much more than this.
It offers a rich repertoire of concepts and ideas, but also a profound rethinking of how we do
scientific analysis.
IR scholars became concerned about ANT from the 2000s (Walters 2002, Lidskog and
Sunqvist 2002, Bueger and Gadinger 2007). With the interest in IR for relational approaches,
concerns over the concept of practice and International Practice Theory, and the curiosity
around re-thinking materiality, ANT became more widely used and is increasingly seen as an
established approach to the study of the international (Best and Walters 2013, Bueger and
Gadinger 2014). Since ANT shares little with conventional notions of ‘theory’ and has been
rightfully called to be rather an “attitude” or “sensitivity” (Law 2009, Mol 2010,Gad and Bruun
Jensen 2009), there remains however much confusion of what one can do with ANT. The
richness, diversity and complexity of research clustered around ANT, escapes presenting it as
a coherent approach. For us, the most promising way of introducing ANT is dwelling in the
rich studies that have been produced, understanding the puzzles they address and the concepts
that they developed. In consequence, our introduction is based on the reading of a range of
classical contributions to ANT which have direct relevance to questions of technology and
global politics.It is as much an overview as it is an invitation to read these classics for yourself.
Many of the classical ANT studies, especially the ones we introduce, make a fantastic and often
even entertaining read.
The chapter is structured in three sections. In the following section we introduce six classical
ANT studies of technologies. Each of these gives us a particular snippet of what ANT is and
how one analyses with it. On the basis of these studies, we discuss in the next section a range
of concepts that have been developed in ANT. We do not suggest that ANT should be reduced
to these, but they provide major starting points and inspiration for conducting ANT analyses.
Our discussion continues with a review ofhow ANT has become translated to IR and the study
of global governance. In particular the fields of global environmental governance, international
political economy and critical security studies have become concerned about ANT. Moreover,
ANT is increasingly located within the turn to international practice theory and recognized as
vital to further this approach and adopt itmore broadly to study international politics and global
governance. We conclude with a number of core points of what one has to keep in mind if one
wants to embark into an empirical ANT project.
Technological Innovation: Insights from ANT Classics
ANT is very much an ‘empirical theory’, or a theoretical position that is primarily concerned
with empirical questions. Not only does ANT aim at facilitating empirical research, but it has
in fact been developed through empiricalwork.ANT was basically constructed out of empirical
studies that develop concepts. To understand ANT and its conceptual apparatus, we therefore
need to read some of the studies of the ANT pioneers and founding fathers such as John Law,
Michel Callon, Bruno Latour and Anne-Marie Mol. This also gives us an idea about how ANT
approaches the world empirically, how it develops narratives of politics, power, technology
and transformation, and how its concepts try to make sense of complex situations.
John Law’s (1987) analysis of Portugal’s maritime empire in the 15th century is a good starting
point. It illustrate ANT’s approach to studying technological innovation, in particular with
regard to the big questions of world politics, that is, the global distribution of power and the
making of empires. Law tries to understand how the Portuguese managed to create and
maintain an empire. His answer is the invention of new shipping technologies that enabled the
Portuguese to sail around the African continent and to eventually dominate trade and politics
in the Indian Ocean. High waves, heavy wind and strong currents made the sea journey to the
Indian Ocean a dangerous undertaking. Initially, the sailing ships and skills of the Portuguese
did not match this hostile natural environment. Their ships sank and did not return. Three types
of innovations were necessary to solve this problem and to master forces of nature at the sea.
First, the sailing ships had to be redesigned to sustain against the harsh weather; second
navigation techniques based on the magnetic compass had to be invented in order to enable
seafarers to keep their routes in the absence of clear skies and without seeing the coast; third,
the invention of a new sailing method, the so-called circle sailing method, allowed the
Portuguese to cope with and to effectively make use of strong winds and currents on the sea.
The Portuguese thus eventually managed to master and to realign the destructive forces of
nature through technological innovation. Law describes this processas “system building”(Law
1987). Heterogeneous materials such as planks, wind, water and navigation skills were
assembled, controlled and stabilized in a specific way. They formed relatively durable
structures in which competing elements and materials are held together. His study thus
“displays the strategies of system-building and, in particular, the heterogeneous and conflicting
field of forces within which technological problems are posed and solved” (Law 1987: 252).
Law’s study is important because it shows that political power and the production of globality
depend on technologies. Technological innovations were essential for Portugal’s rise. Without
those technologies, Portugal could not have established a global maritime empire.
While Law’s work on the Portuguese empire sheds light on how durable and stable structures
evolve, Michel Callon (1986) is more interested in fragility, disorder and the limits of power.
Rather than empires he studies a local episode of a collaboration in St. Brieuc Bay in the
English Channel. It is a story of a collaboration between scientists, fishermen, and scallops.
Yes, scallops! The start of the story is the attempt of scientists to solve the problem of declining
scallop stocks in the bay. To do so they want to introduce a new type of breeding device. The
success of this innovative research project was based on several assumptions, namely that the
scallops disappear because they are overfished, that the scallops will use the new breeding
devices to ensure their survival, and that the fishermen will support the project because they
want to maintainor even increaseproduction. The scientists soughtto advance theirknowledge
on the subject and were therefore interested in the results of the project. In other words, the
scientists had designed a heterogeneous network in which the problems of human and natural
actors are interlinked and in which their interests intersect. However, the scallops-breeding
device-fishermen-scientists network turned out to be very fragile. The scallops in particular
were unhappy and refused to use and settle at the new breeding devices. Part of the failure to
attract the scallops was that the breeding devices could not withstand the currents and waves
in St Brieuc Bay. Yet, also the fishermen undermined the project when they began fishing in
areas protected for scallop breeding. The project terribly failed. Callon’s study of the scallops
of St Brieuc Bay is an important ANT work for several reason. He describes the scallops as an
‘actor’ who has the capacity to disrupts, resist and sabotages human practices. Nature and
material objects have agency, too, Callon argues, and they cannot be controlled and
‘domesticated’ easily. The study also hints at ANT’s distinct approach to power. Power is not
simply located in material capabilities, but where those capabilities are created, ordered and
arranged. Callon thus stresses the central role that knowledge and scientific practices, as in the
case of the domestication of scallops, play in the exercise of power.
A study of more mundane encounters with material agency and power is Bruno Latour’s
(published under the pseudonym Jim Johnson) “Sociology of a Door-Closer”. In the article,
Latour demonstrates in mundanedetail how door-closer technology structures human practices
in everyday encounters. It is a fascinating introduction to how ANT often takes very basic and
everyday observations as a starting point for theorization. Latour argues that door closers, are
responses to what he calls the “hole-wall dilemma” (Johnson 1988: 299). “Walls are a nice
invention, but if there were no holes in them, there would be no way to get in or out” (Johnson
1988: 298). A technology like the doora “hole-wall” (Johnson1988: 299)since it has features
of bothis designedto solve this problem. Yet, installing a doorleads to a new set of problems.
The users of a door often forget to close it. A door that is not closed is like a hole. Solving the
‘door-closer problem is thus essential to overcome the ‘hole-wall dilemma’. One solution
would be to stick a note againstthe door askingfor it to be closed after use. But it is very likely
that door users would not pay any attention to the note and that the door would stay open.
Another solution would be to employ a porter to close the door. But this is expensive, and one
also needs to solve the supervision problem and make sure that the porter is motivated to fulfil
this boring task effectively. The third solution to the door-closing problem is a technological
one, the installation of a spring mechanism to make the door close automatically. Yet a
powerful spring mechanism to ensure that the door closes also slams the door so violently
“that you, the visitor, have to be very quick in passing through and that you should not be at
someone else's heels; otherwise your nose will get shorter” (Johnson 1988: 301). In other
words, the spring mechanism forces humans to adapt and to behave in a certain way. Latour
uses the case of the door-closer to demonstratethat human and non-human practices essentially
intersect, and that a distinction between them cannot be maintained. Society would not function
without mundane technologies such as the door-closer, which in many ways replace and
takeover jobs previously performed by humans. Technologies stabilize and enable human
practices, but in doing so they also constrain and condition them. The world of Latour is hence
one of mundane power struggles. Everyday practices of domination and resistance are
manifested in socio-material interactions, like door-stoppers. Indeed, Latour and other ANT
researchers have used such mundane examples quite frequently in demystifying technology,
but also to show that it is often the details that matter.
Latour has however also been interested in ‘big’ technology. A particular fascinating example
is his 1996 book Aramis, or the Love of Technology. The book presents a fictionalized
reconstruction of a failed innovation in urban transportation. It investigates the so-called
Aramis technology, the attempt to develop a personal rapid transit system to be installed in
Paris. It was developed for more than a decade, but was never realized in urban transportation.
Latours book is a milestone in the ANT literature, in particular because of the way it focuses
on the empirical research process. It is written as a detective story. The reader follows a
professor and his assistant as they try to find out what kept the Aramis technology ‘alive’ for
so long,why it eventually ‘died’, and what or who actually ‘killed’ it. The twodetectives gather
evidence and they interview officials, project managers and engineers involved in different
phases of the project. The two encounter verydifferent and often contradictory explanations of
why the project failed. They find technologicalexplanations, such as that Aramis was
technologically infeasible and that it did not work in a major transportation system. They also
find socialexplanations, for instance that the government did not support the project or that
the wider public had no interest in it. The two protagonists of the book hence struggle to create
a consistent picture of the Aramis project, why it was kept ‘alive’ and what exactly caused its
death. They fail to come up with a consistent explanation. This account is significantly
different from previous ANT studies, which gave neat answers to empirical problems. Callon
for instance had explained the failure of the domestication technology with the resistance of
the scallops. By focusing on the empirical research process, however, Latour creates a world
that is so complex, chaotic and contradictory that it cannot be grasped and explained in a single
narrative. The question of what or who ‘killed’ Aramis cannot be conclusively answered. In
the end, the two researchers therefore conclude that Aramisdeath was not inevitable, and that
neither technological nor social explanations can be found. Aramis ‘died’ because the actors
involved did not sustain it through further negotiations and adaptations. They did not ‘love’ it
anymore, and when they stopped caring about it, Aramis ‘died’ and ceased to exist. With the
book, Latour not only powerfully points to the parallels between the criminal detective and the
academic (ANT) researchers, he also undermines the idea that the outcome of research should
be concise explanations, judgements or linear narratives.
Also core areas of concern of IR and security studies have been addressed by classic ANT
research. Two of our favourite examples are a co-authored study by Law and Callon (1992) on
a defense technology project in the UK and a study of technology transfer for development by
Marianne de Laet and Anna-Marie Mol (2000). In “The Life and Death of an Aircraft”, Law
and Callon (1992) investigate the development of a new aircraft for the UK’s Royal Air Force.
The aircraft project TSR.2, initiated in the late 1950s, was part of a complex political
negotiation process in which theaircraft “represented different things to different actors” (Law
and Callon 1992: 25). For the Air Force and the Ministry of Defense, TSR.2 was part of a
military strategy to defend Britain and the Western Alliance; the Treasury saw the aircraft as a
sufficiently cheap end-product, and for the Ministry of Supply it was an industrial policy
instrument. This fragile political compromise, which Law and Callon describe as a “global
network”, resulted in the construction of “local networks” of companies and sub-contractors to
translate TSR.2 into a concrete aircraft. However, technological problems and political
interference complicated this process. Project designers had to reconcile the demanding
specifications of the Air Force with constrains imposed by physical forces and the limits of
technological solutions available to them. They also had to deal with political interference and
budget constraints by the Treasury. Furthermore, contractors and sub-contractors competed
over resources as they tried to promote their technologies in TSR.2. Political opposition to
TSR.2 grew as costs exploded and progress remained slow. Suggestions of the Ministry of
Defense that the aircraft could also be used in a nuclearcapacity were criticised by the political
Left, which wanted to stop nuclear proliferation, as well as by military experts, who argued
that TSR.2 was not designed for that purpose. The first test flight of the TSR.2 aircraft took
eventually place in 1964, but the project was cancelled only a year later under a new Labour
government that had promised to put an end to expensive ‘prestige projects’. Like the Aramis
story, Law and Callon give us a fascinating story of the failure of technology in which various
actors and interests intersect and cannot be aligned any more.
With similar means of investigation, de Laet and Mol (2000) provide us a remarkable story of
success and adaptation. They discuss a case of technological innovation in a non-western
context, they study the working of a water pump in Zimbabwe. The mechanic water pumping
technique was originally invented to support the expanding agricultural sector and industrial
development in Europe. The first model of the so-called Zimbabwean “bush pump” was
designed in 1931 for improve farming in what was then the British Colony of Southern
Rhodesia. Today the “Zimbabwe Bush Pump” brings water to thousands of rural communities
across the country. de Laet and Mol argue that the bush pump functions as part of a web of
socio-material relations, which perform and constitute it in different ways. The bush pump is a
hydraulic device that provides water, a public health device that enhances community well-
being, a participation device that needs a local community to use, build and maintain it, and a
national standard and nation building device that is actively promoted by the Zimbabwean
administration. The boundaries of the water pump are thus fluid and its size varies. It
encompasses families, communities and the entire Zimbabwean nation. The bush pump is a
distributed device, and it is impossible to say who or what makes it work and guarantees its
success. The engineer who invented it, the company who produces it, the community who
adapts it, and the administration who promotes it, they all ‘own’ the Zimbabwean bush pump
and make it work. The water pump is constantly being shaped and reshaped by these multiple
‘authors’, and its invention and development is thus an ongoing and never ending process.
Looking at the aircraft study and the bush pump study allow for a comparative perspective on
technological innovation across fields. Both technologies have multiple and fluid ontologies.
Their respectiveperformanceshang together and are closely interrelated,but theyare notbased
on the same logics and they turnthe same device into different things. Furthermore, neither the
aircraft nor the water pump have a centre that could control and manage their different
performances. Yetthe aircraft project fails because its different interpretations clash and cannot
be reconciled, and because the project cannot control the intersection of local and global
networks on which it depends. For the water pump, on the other hand, ontological multiplicity,
distributed ownership and the lack of control is not problematic at all. Instead, the water pump
thrives and spreads exactly because no one can control it, because it is so adaptable to multiple
environments and situations, and because it can be used in many different ways. This shows
that, from an ANT perspective, the success or failure of a new technology is contingent and
cannot be pre-determined. In-depth empirical investigations are required.
With these six stories we havea good range of examples of how ANT works. Breeding devices,
doorstoppers or bush pumps seem very micro on the on-set, but as ANT researchers show there
is actually a rich universe which makes these possible. The breeding device required a rich web
of associations, of all sorts of actors, to work, as did the other technologies. Hence what
appeared small from the onset, wasn’t actually even if compared to the Portuguese empire.
Through reconstructing these webs of associations and relations ANT provides narratives of
success, but also of technological failure, and it shows how power is inscribed into these
networks. The Aramis story, in particular, has shown us how ANT researchers want to work:
they are detectives which aim at reconstructing particular cases.
Sensitizing Concepts: ANT’s Vocabulary
ANT has often been criticized for actually not being a theory, since it does not offer coherent
a system of generalizations which we could adopt or ‘test’ universally. Indeed, whether ANT
should be called ‘theory’ at all, was hotly debated among researchers, and Latour or Callon
preferred to dub it differently (Latour 1999, Callon 1999). Yet the label, ANT was sticky.
Instead of renouncing the term ‘theory’, researchers pointed out that ANT profoundly
challenges what we might want to understand by that term (Latour 2005, Mol 2010). Indeed
ANT is a web of conceptual associations in itself, and these have been developed to facilitate
empirical enquiry.
The way that conceptswork and how they areused in ANT researchishencea little bit different
from many other approaches in IR and the social sciences in general. To understand this
difference it is helpful to think about the conventional role of concepts in theories. Theories,
known in IR as ‘realism’ (Waltz 1979), for instance, start from the assumption that the world
consists of ‘states’ and that the international system is ‘anarchic’. ‘States’ and ‘anarchy’ are
part of a conceptual apparatus that guides and constrains empirical investigations in the realist
tradition. The task of a researcher drawing on that theory is then to study interactions between
‘states’ under conditions of ‘anarchy’. ANT, in contrasts, avoids to make any apriori
assumptions about the world and the entities that exist in it. It does not aim at developing a
universal meta-language that can be matched to that world. In ANT there are no fundamental
ontological concepts such as ‘state or ‘anarchy’. This follows that ANT does not aim at
explaining the world ‘theoretically’, and that it does not seek to limit empirical investigations
to predefined entities and dynamics such as ‘interactions between states under conditions of
anarchy’. ANT aims at liberating empirical investigations from such ontological constrains,
and it seeks to generate concepts and explanations based on empiricalinvestigationsrather than
on ontological deliberations. ANT is, as pointed out before, an empirical theory.
The foregrounding of the empirical is reflected in ANT’s conceptual vocabulary. ANT
concepts need to be understood as flexible researchtools that facilitate empirical investigation.
ANT concepts are vague, ambiguous and overlapping. They do not explain the world but help
to explore and to describe it. The ANT vocabulary draws attention to empirical problems and
challenges without suggesting how to solve them. Their main function is to sensitize.
According to Mol, ANT concepts help in getting a sense of what is going on, what deserves
concern or care, anger or love, or simply attention” (Mol 2010: 262). They provide “modes of
engaging with the world” (Mol 2010: 262), ways of asking questions(Mol 2010: 261) and
techniques for turning issues inside out or upside down.” (Mol 2010: 261). In consequence,
ANT has not developed a comprehensive conceptual apparatus. Driven by empirical problems
and challenges, the ANT vocabulary is flexible and dynamic. ANT concepts are developed on
an empirical basis, for instance in the studies described above, and they are constantly adopted
and further developed through empirical research. To a certain extent, each ANT study needs
to develop its own conceptual apparatus to explain and analyze a specific empirical problem.
There is no universal vocabulary fit to capture the manifold practices and processes in the
world. If an empirical investigation starts out from existing concepts, it also generates new
concepts and termstailor made to capture its empirical problems. Existing ANT studies provide
a repertoire from where to start. Indeed, anumber of basic conceptsin the ANT literature have
proved particularly useful for empirical research.
Perhaps one of the most vital concepts is given by the very name of ANT, that is, Actor-
Network. The term has been as much controversial as the notion of theory in ANT, and a
range of alternatives were proposed such as ‘assemblage’ or ‘actant-rhizome’ (e.g. Latour
1999). The main motive behind these proposals was to clarify that ANT has little in common
with conventional ‘network theory’ as it became increasingly popular in social science and IR
(Gaad and Bruun Jensen 2011). Before we explore this difference, let us discuss the notion of
“actor-network” first. The basic idea of ANT is that the whole world consists of networks, and
that every organization, process or practice can thereforebe described in network terms (Latour
1997: 3). Exploring how ‘networks’ evolve, how ‘associations’ are stabilized and how
‘connections’ dissolve is the main task and purpose of an ANT investigation. Also an actor
needs to be seen as a network thatconsists of many other actors,actor and network come always
together hence the hyphen in the term ‘actor-network. An actor can be taken apart, and its
components can be disassembled and reassembled. Law and Callon (1992), for instance,
described the TSR.2 aviation project in term of local and global networks.Agencyis distributed
within a network or ‘collective’. Who or what acts is always an empirical problem that can
only be determined by investigating the network though which an effect is being produced. An
actor-network is therefore also more than the sum of its components. It takes on a logic of its
own that cannot be reduced to that of its constituting actors and practices. ANT is also called
‘relation ontology’ since actors and effects are produced through relations within networks.
This is also the core difference to network theory, which takes the elements (or nodal points)
of a network for granted (Gaad and Brun Jensen 2010). For instance, In Law’s analysis of
Portugal’s maritime empire, the sailing technique cannot be reduced to the elements it is made
off (e.g. planks, water and wind, etc.). The logic of the technique is the way it connects those
elements within a durable network. The network vocabulary hence also enables ANT to locate
material agency within a networkand to study heterogeneity as a network consisting of material
and non-material elements. In the words of Law (1992: 383) the social is nothing other than
patterned networks of heterogeneous materials, or an effect produced by such a network”.
ANT’s understanding of agency is captured in the concept of actant. It is a core concept to
grasp materiality. Originating in literary studies, the concept holds thatanything potentially has
agency, and that there is no difference in the ability of humans, animals, technologies or other
non-humans to act. The scallops in St. Briece Bay, for instance, have agency simply because
they resist association with the breeding devices provided to them. There are hence no intrinsic
qualities that make or constitute an action, and agency is neither characterized by reflectivity
nor by intentionality or the logic of teleology. Instead agency is understood as an effect or as
the modification of a state of affairs. Agency in that sense is everything that has an impact and
makes a difference in the world. What matters is that the scallops undermined the restocking
project designed bythe scientists. An actant can therefore not act on its own. Agencyisrealized
through networks and in association with other actants. An actant is configured in specific
networks through which an effect is being produced. A network, in other words, gives an actant
shape and turns it into a concrete actor. The door-closer technology analyzed by Latour, for
instance, makes a huge difference in the world. It replaces the work of humans or other non-
humans that would be required to close the door in its absence (e.g. a porter). The agency of
the door-closer is realized in association with the wall, the hole, the door and its human users.
This heterogeneous network configures the door-closer and makes it part of a mundane
practice. In the words of Latour, anything that does modify a state of affairs by making a
difference is an actor or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant” (Latour 2005: 71). As Barbara
Czarniawska (2014: 58) summarizes the core of the actant concept: “If all the characters are
known from the beginning, there is no story to tell; if powerful actors can do what they want,
there is nothing more to say. From an ANT perspective on should ask: ‘By what route have
certain actants become powerful actors and others have not, or how is power constructed?’”.
All of the concepts we explore in the following, are responses to that question: they identify
mechanisms of this route to become actors and powerful.
The first concept that is essential is that of mediator. Mediators are technologies that do not
function as passive objects and that do not simply pass on some effect from one actant to
another. Instead, to use the words of Latour (2005: 339), they“transform, translate, distort, and
modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry.” The concept of mediators
hence enables investigations into how technologies shape practices and the effects that they
help to produce. The multiple performances of the Zimbabwean bush pump studied by
Marianne de Laet and Anna-Marie Mol (2002) exemplifies this point. As we showed before,
the Zimbabwean water pumps performs the nation, the community, public health and
hydraulics. Yet it does not simply carry, reproduce or represent these effects. Instead, it
produces them and makes them possible in the first place. There would be no nation without
national identification symbols and standards such as the water pump; public health concerns
would remain irrelevant without tools, such as the water pump, to address them; there would
be no community without joint practices and common understandings associated with using
and maintaining a water pump; and even hydraulic mechanisms would not exist if they were
not enshrined in mundane technologies such as the Zimbabwean bush pump. As such, the water
pump is not a neutral object, but it shapes and makes a difference to the effects that it helps to
produce. The community performed through the water pump varies depending on where the
pump is located within a village and how many families use it. A water pump that is located
centrally in the middle of a village and that is used by the whole village produces a larger
community than a pump at the fringes of a village that provides water to the immediate
neighborhood only. In other words, the water pump is a mediator that produces the
communities and that also shapes and configures the community that is produced through it.
A related concept is that of the “black box”. A black box is a combination of actants, such as
a device, system, or technology whose internal workings are hidden and do not matter anymore
for those who use it and the way it is used. A case in point is the door and the door-closing
technology analyzed by Latour (Johnson 1988). A door is like a hole in the wall that can be
opened and closed as desired. This effect is produced through a complex and carefully arranged
socio-technologicalactor-network. It includes hinges, which enables the door toopen, the door-
closer, which makes sure that the door closes automatically, and door users who know how to
use a door. Yet door-users do not need to know anything about the hinges and the door-closer,
and they also do not need to think about how to open the door and how to pass through it. The
internal mechanisms of the door and the way it is being used have been successfully ‘black
boxed’; they have become invisible and all that remains is the door and the effect it produces,
namely that people can pass through it. Black boxing hence transforms a complex object or
technology, like a door, into a simple tool that can be used in practice. And despite its internal
complexity, it can be treated as a single unit. According to Latour(1987: 3),a black box is used
“whenever a piece of machinery or a set of commands is too complex”. However, Latour also
shows what happened if a black box fails to produce the desired effect. Problems arise if the
door-closer is on strike and refuses to work, or ifthe door closes too quickly for people to pass
through it comfortably. In such moments, the black box of the door is reopened again and all
that was hidden inside it the hinges, the door-closer, and the way it is used reappear and
become visible again. Also world politics is made up of many black boxed technologies that
produce stable and predictable effects. A case in point are cyber systems, which have become
essential in almost all walks of international life, though most people using them have no idea
how they actually work. Yet the problem of cyber security has reopened that black box. It has
become obvious that cyber systems are actually rather fragile and vulnerable constructs, and
that they can easily be attacked and dismantled. The cyber security discourse is thus a very
technical one in which the inner-workings of the cyber black box are being analysed and
discussed. Almost every organization or government nowadays has a cyber securitydepartment
that tries to keep the cyber black box safe and secure so that it can function as one unit.
The concept of translation is a core concept within ANT to describe the quality of relations
and associations. It captures the ways in which hybrid networks are formed. What the concept
tries to grasp is how different actants, which have never interacted before, become connected
and start to behave as part of a network. In other words, the concept of translations is all about
relations. It is a device to study the evolution of new relations, what happens to the actants in
that relationship, and how they struggle over the shape and content of their relationship.
According toCallon (1986:203),translation is the process “during which the identity of actors,
the possibility of interaction and the margins of manoeuvre are negotiated and delimited.In
his study of the scallops of St Brieuc Bay, where he coined the ANT understanding of
translation, Callon (1986) analysed in detail how three scientists tried to construct and to
manage the relationship between scallops, the new breeding device, the fishermen, and the
scientific community.
As we explained before, specific roles were assigned to these actors to
make them work together in a specific way. The scallops were supposed to use the new
breeding device, the fishermen were meant not to fish in areas designed for scallop breeding
and the scientific community would accept the research findings of the three scientists. The
network was assumed to rely on a joint interest of all its actors in the survival of the scallops.
The three scientists were at the centre of the network. They defined the interests and identities
of its actors and how they would cooperate. Trying to make the actors interact and work
together, however, proved difficult. Not only did the scallops refuse to be enrolled into a
relationship with the breeding device, but also the fishermen did not play the role assigned to
them by fishing in areas protected for scallop breeding. Put differently, the translations
designed by the three scientists failed. The interests of the scallops, the breeding device and
the fishermendid not align in the end, and the relationships between them remained fragile and
broke apart.
Finally, let us consider the concept of inscription, which is another key term in ANT’s
relational terminology. It capturesthe outcome of a successful translation process. The concept
of inscriptiondescribes astable relationship between two (heterogeneous)actors in which their
roles are clearly defined, their behaviours are attuned to each other and their patterns of
interactions are well established. A successful inscriptions can turn a complex technology, like
a door, into a black box that functions like a single unit. The concept of inscriptions is
particularly useful to think about how technologies have become to be part of everyday
practices and how they dominate the way that things are done. For instance, in Latour’s analysis
the door-closer technology is inscribed onto the behaviour of humansand the way that theyuse
and pass through the door (Johnson 1988). The concept of inscription hence also refers to a
power relationship in which one actor dominates the behaviour of another one. In Latour’s
study, the door-closer imposes certain restrictions and patterns of actions on the user of the
door. The technology determines how much time there is to pass through the door and it can
force people to move very fast. Yet inscriptions, and that is the trick, also work the other way
around. The success of an inscriptions depends on the performance of the actors and their
ability to execute the script of action imposed on them. In our example, the nature of the door-
users also impose certain restrictions and limitations on the door-closer and its ability to
determine how the door has to be used. A cat is faster than a human and could thus be forced
to move through the door much quicker. Hence, inscriptions need to be understood as
relationships of power that go both ways. The power of the dominant actor is limited and it
relies, at least to some degree, on the dominated actor and whether it accepts and is able to
execute the script imposed on it. Resistance is an option, power and domination are fragile and
inscriptions can fail. The concept of inscription allows us to explore empirically relationships
of power between actors and the tension betweendominance, resistance and cooperation within
a heterogeneous network.
Callon identifies four steps in the translation process, namely problematization, interestment, enrolment and
mobilization. Each of these terms has become part of the ANT vocabulary and they have been used and further
developed widely. However, in this text book chapter we decided not to introduce them in order to avoid
conceptual overflow.
These concepts we introduced are examples for the type of vocabulary that ANT develops
and draws on to develop empirical narratives. These concepts sensitize to the empirical
material, they are not meant to pre-determine any relations or to offer explanations in their
own right. ANT’s vocabulary should always be read together with the empirical stories in
which the concept play a role to describe relations. As Blok and Elgaard Jensen (2011: 111)
summarize it no meta-theorizing is found here, no grandiose social explanation; and no
‘pure’ human relations that are not already closely interwoven with esoteric details”.
ANT and the Practice Turn in IR
Also IR scholarship has started to play and experiment with ANT concepts and the epistemic
style that it encourages. ANT ideas became initially influential in IR to rethink the role of
science in international politics. The question of how science influences international politics
is perhaps as old as the first attempts to set up international organizations. One can identify a
stream of thinking in this regards that starts out with 18th century philosopher de Saint-Simon
who argued that international relations should be in the hands of science and technology rather
than diplomats and the governments they represent (Mazower 2012: 96). These early
technocratic ideas visibly influenced works that became known as IR ‘functionalism’, as
elaborated by David Mitrany in the inter-war period, and by Ernst Haas in the post-world War
II era (Bueger 2014: 42-43). The functionalist research agenda was concerned about the roles
that scientists perform in global governance processes. The prevalent framework since the
1990s was the so-called “epistemic community” concept which aimed at identifying scientists
as an (external) actor type that influenced national and global governance (Cross 2012). The
main case in which the role of epistemic communities was discussed was environmental
governance where science and technology is particularly visible. ANT was introduced to this
debate as an alternative to the epistemic community concept. In particular a study by Lidskog
and Sunqvist (2002) made the point that ANT allows to understand the intersection of science
and politics in the creation of transnational environmental regimes. The two study the case of
the Convention on Long-Range TransboundaryAirPollution (LRTAP). Theydemonstrate how
one of the most effective global environmental regimes during the Cold War was jointly co-
produced by scientists and politicians. Lidskog and Sunqvist argue, in a nutshell, that
environmental science provided a neutral ground for political cooperation between Cold War
adversaries. As they put it, the “politicians’ search for neutral —politically uncontroversial
issues to cooperate on was an important explanatory factor with regard to the scientific
character of the regime” (Lidskog and Sunqvist 2002: 89). Scientific knowledgealso continued
to shape the evolutionof the LRTAP regimein the following years. Drawing on ANT, Lidskog
and Sunqvist describe in particular how, in the 1990s, scientists became crucial to translate the
interests of states into the expanding LRTAP regime and enabled them to cooperate in a far
reaching agreement to cut emissions.
ANT categories have also started to shape the discussion in international political economy
which became interested in the role of everyday political practice (Hobson and Seabrooke
2007). It was in particular the idea that economists are an influential actor through the
technological devices they develop(e.g.Callon and Muniesa2005;Makenzie et al 2007)which
spurred this agenda. The idea that economics and the economy lends itself to ANT analyses
was originally proposed by Callon (1998) and has inspired a growing body of literature that
studies processes of ‘economization’ and the construction of markets. This literature analyses
in detail how the theories and concepts of economists are inscribed into market technologies,
including standards, calculating instruments, metrology and, more generally, material
infrastructure in market formation” (Çalışkan and Callon 2007: 384). If originally only
discussed in economic sociology, in the meantime there is a rich host of research in
International Political Economy. A recent study byHenriksen (2013), for instance, investigates
changing practices in development finance and how the World Bank helped to construct a
global market for microfinance. Henriksen is particularly interested in the “politics of
equipping for calculation” (Henriksen 2013: 407). He shows that the web-based infrastructure
of performance indicators, standardization techniques and calculation devices derived from
neo-classical economic theory is key to understandinghow the global market for micro finance
operates. The idea that economics has governance effects has also been used to explain market
failure. Hall (2009) for instance argues that “financial market behaviour is performative rather
than reflective (Hall 2009: 454), and that the practices leading into the financial crisis were
driven by “the intellectual products of financial economics” (Hall 2009: 457). In another study,
Kessler (2011) draws on the economization framework to compare and to reconnect processes
of ‘financialization’ and ‘securitization’ in world politics. He points toward the centrality of
the notion of risk to highlight “the emergence of new networks, actors, practices, temporalities
and even the very mode in which security and finance are understood and observed.
Closely linked is the debate on a particular contemporary governance technique, namely that
of indicators and statistics. A rich set of sociological and historical works pointed to the link
between statistics, government and states since the 1980s (Davis, Kingsbury and Engle Merry
2012). Recent research on indicators takes this work forward into the global realm. It is based
on the observation of the significant growth of the numbers of indicators measuring all sorts of
aspects of the international from education to corruption. Indicators and statistics, such as the
failed states index, are developed by various actors, ranging from international organizations,
to advocacy organizations, philanthropic organizations to academics. ANT was introduces as
a particular helpful tool to understand how these technology works by focussing on how they
assemble, develop translations and create powerful actors (Bueger 2015, Porter 2012, Davis et
al. 2012, Davis, Kingsbury and Engle Merry 2012).
The mentioned studies all employ ANT to theorize science as a particular technology of
governance. Science in this regards is neither human nor non-human, neither nature nor
politics, it is neitherpurely cognitive nor material, but it has real effects. Studies of science-as-
technology-of-governance that draw on ANT explore the relations which make these
technologies of governance and allow them to govern states and people.
A second set of more recent studies in IR takes their interest in technologies in a more
conventional sense. In particular critical security studies have become concerned with ANT to
study surveillance technology, new types of warfare or to rethink nuclear politics. Here the
interest in ANT is spurred by the attempt to re-think materiality(Aradau 2010, Srnicek,
Fotou, and Arghand 2013). William Walters (2002) was perhaps the first to point to the
usefulness of ANT to recover the material side of doing international politics. His case: the role
of documents in European integration. Since then it was in particular the US-led global war on
terror which spurredthe interest of security studies scholars in the role of technology.Notably,
studies of the airport as a particular security space which hosts technologies took inspirationin
ANT (Salter 2007, Schouten 2014). Another track of investigation concerns warfare and
weapons technology. Pouliot (2010), for instance, discusses the role of nuclear warheads in
NATO-Russia relations, while others follow-up on ANT ideas to develop symmetrical
positions of nuclear politics that embraces the ambivalence of nuclear technology (Harrington
and Engert 2014).
Thirdly, within IR there is a growing awareness that ANT is part of what has been called a
practice turnin IR(Adler and Pouliot 2011, Bueger and Gadinger 2014). Theories of practice
were initially mainly associated with the work of PierreBourdieu (e.g.classically: Ortner 1984,
in IR: Pouliot 2008). It increasingly becomes obvious among IR scholars, social theorists and,
indeed also the ANT community, that ANT should be seen as a part of a general trend towards
the study of practice. ANT scholars, such as Knorr Cetina (2001), have long understood their
work in such a way, others, such as Law (2012), have more recently pointed out that ANTs
concept of relation can be seen as more or less equivocal to the notion of practice, and social
theorists as well as IR scholars have situated ANT within the practice theory discussions (e.g.
Schatzki 2002, Nicolini 2013, Gaad and Bruun Jensen 2014, Bueger and Gadinger 2014). The
importance of recognizing this link should not be underestimated. ANT has developed as a
certain program of research in a specific discipline (STS), yet, some of its core ideas and the
epistemic style it embraces in particular, shares family resemblance to discussions developed
in cultural sociology, feminism, anthropology, historyor pragmatist philosophy. To foreground
relations, to understand science as a practice, to focus on the mundane and everyday, to
consider the material as an active component, to embrace complexity, hybridity, and
multiplicity are features shared by practice theorists (Bueger and Gadinger 2014).Hence, ANT
is not someexoticform of research. It is part of a larger more general trend to rethink (social)
science and direct it towards the study of practices and relations. This context implies that there
are many other partners in the conversation that ANT is part of. Hence there are also multi-fold
connections that can be made if one analyses global politics and aims at rendering ANTstudies
intelligible to specific discipline such as IR or political science.
What to do with ANT: In Conclusion
ANT can be understood as a social theory which offers a unique take on technology as part of
and made in webs of associations (actor-networks). But it is much more than that. ANT is a
methodology which encourages us to do science differently. It offers us a distinct style of how
to produce knowledge about the world by being in that world. ANT wants us to be detectives
that go out and explore the world and how humans and non-humans work together. We should
take less for granted before we start our research. Do not assume that you already know who
the actors are! Do not start from the assumption that humans and non-humans are essentially
different! Go explore relations and how actants become actors and powerful! Those are some
of the guidelines that ANT equips us with. Also the objectives of doing research change. Our
goal is no longer to identify the one coherent explanation or verify and falsify a system of
general claims. It is to appreciate incoherence, to embrace and to explore multiplicity. As an
ANT researcher you do not want to tell one clean, sanitized narrative, and to make your
empirics fit. Instead it is to draw on the empirical material, let it speak for itself as far as
possible yes, let the scallops and doorclosers speak! It is to reconstruct complexity and
incoherence. But where does one start from, if it is not from theoretical assumptions? If the
world is contingent and fluid what are the empirical starting points? Whether we are
investigating how things work in practice or why they fail, the anchor is always a problematic
situation, that is, a state that causes problems and in which something is at stake. Whether it is
rescuing the scallops, closing holes in the wall or how to provide water to local populations,
these are all problematic situations. Starting out from this problem, ANT gives us an open and
flexible vocabulary to record and describe the work by which these problems are made and
unmade. It allows us to pursue open, flexible and indeterminate empirical enquiry beyond
epistemological and ontological constrains. All this sounds radical if thought of in
philosophical terms. But if one appreciates the narratives that arise out of ANT research, it is
actually not. What we get at are narratives which are creative, thought provoking and eye
opening. Also IR and the study of global politics will benefit from those new types of
narratives, about how technology acts, and how out of the messiness of international life actors
evolve and become powerful because of the associations and relations they are part of.
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... The first invokes actor-network theory (e.g. Bueger & Stockbruegger, 2017;Latour, 2005) and argues that everything in a game that is capable of changing the game state must be considered an agent: 90 if a button opens a door, the button is an agent, as is a non-player character that alters the player's character's attributes. The second argument states that only those entities that can execute mechanics without prior input from another entity should be considered agents. ...
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... Eine stark von den Laborstudien Bruno Latours (1987) und der daran anknüpfenden Akteur-Netzwerk-Theorie (ANT, siehe Latour 2005; Mol 2010) beeinflusste Technikforschung und Techniksoziologie hat deren Fruchtbarkeit für die Erforschung von vielfältigen Phänomenen gezeigt (vgl. Bueger und Stockbruegger 2018). In den Medienwissenschaften ist darauf aufbauend auch von einer "Akteur-Medien-Theorie" (Thielmann et al. 2013) die Rede. ...
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In der Einleitung zum Sammelband Auditive Wissenskulturen – Das Wissen klanglicher Praxis stellen die Autoren zuerst die Diskrepanzen der jeweiligen Beziehungen des Visuellen und des Auditiven zu Wissen anhand einiger Beispiele vor. Sie exemplifizieren auch, wie sowohl auditive Praxis als auch die Hervorbringung und Vermittlung von Wissen in soziale Prozesse eingebunden sind und damit einhergehend mit Machtverhältnissen in Verbindung stehen. Die Erforschung von Klang durch Sound Studies und anthropologische Studien werden genauer behandelt, ebenso Gemeinsamkeiten und Unterschiede in den Herangehensweisen an Klänge seitens der Wissenschaften und der Künste. Schließlich schlagen sie vor, den Begriff der Wissenskulturen als Forschungsstrategie zum Verstehen von auditivem Wissen zu benutzen, um explizites und implizites Wissen, wissenschaftliche und künstlerische, sowie klangproduzierende Prozesse und Hörverständnis gleichermaßen innerhalb sozialer und kollektiver Felder beschreib- und analysierbar zu machen. Diese Forschungsstrategie wird anhand einer Übersicht über die Beiträge im vorliegenden Band im Detail vorgestellt.
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Por generaciones, la producción y elaboración de yerba mate ha estado primordialmente en manos de miles de productores familiares en la provincia de Misiones (Argentina). Sin embargo, políticas de desregulación, cambios tecnológicos y procesos de concentración económica los han ido relegado a meros proveedores de materia prima a la industria. Este artículo describe y analiza la red socio técnica impulsada por un grupo de productores familiares que buscan recuperar una tecnología tradicional (los secaderos tradicionales o de sistema barbacuá) como alternativa productiva. Se presta atención a la historia del cultivo y elaboración de la yerba mate en el territorio, a las especificidades de este proceso productivo único en el mundo y finalmente al proceso de articulación de la red productiva evaluando sus logros y limitaciones. La perspectiva teórica es la teoría del actor red (ANT).
Materialist thinking in recovery studies, both within mental health and addiction research, remains a niche area of interest. In the recent decades, materialist thinking has seen a new rise within sociology of science. The renewed wave of materialism is about learning how to trace the assembling of entities that form into an object marking a return to the scientific roots of materialist thinking.
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This study deploys Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to understand how educational standards take shape. To exemplify the inherently collective nature of standards and contingency in the process of standardisation, this study will present a case of the CEFR-J project launched by a group of Japanese university academics to modify the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) for English-language teaching and learning in Japan. Drawing on documentary materials and in-depth interviews, I will describe how the CEFR has become a standard for English-language teaching in Japan while various actors were brought together through the CEFR-J project.
Could the most miniscule of objects, imperceptible to the human eye, enact whole new political economies? The suggestion may seem odd, but this article shows that tiny molecules are already engendering new regimes of value across the fields of global health and biodefense. Delving genealogically into the onto-epistemology of the life sciences, the article thus traces the protracted molecular reconfigurations of state-market relations underpinning the global bioeconomy and civilian biodefense today. Using methodological precepts developed through assemblage thinking, this evolving patchwork of new constellations is conceptualized as a global molecular assemblage. Attending to the lively play of molecules in the world advances the post-Foucauldian, molecular study of biopolitics by exploring how scientific shifts in our ‘vital epistemics’ contour state-market relations. It further contributes to the development of a post-human international political economy that is more sensitive to the ways in which artefacts (like molecules) too exhibit particular kinds of ‘agency’ and ‘force’ in the world. Finally, it also enhances the field’s ability to make unconventional, hitherto overlooked and multi-scalar connections in the study of political economy through the creative use of assemblage thinking. In the case of molecules, such assemblage thinking can – quite literally – reveal the value of ‘life’.
In Western scholarship and policy analysis, Tunisia has been singled out since its independence in 1956 as a “model for modernity” in the region of the Middle East and North African (MENA) with the first president after independence, Habib Bourguiba introducing progressive women’s rights. With the uprisings in 2010/2011, Tunisia again stood out, and this time as the country where the so-called Arab Spring started and information and communication technologies (ICTs) were used to overthrow dictatorship. Here, the narrative of the “Facebook revolution” took its starting point where ICTs were framed as tools of emancipation and empowerment.
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The role and functions of expertise in international politics is, since decades, a core research theme. This chapter outlines a history of how the relation between science and international politics has been approached through the lenses of expertise. My intention is to offer a heuristic device. I argue that the debate can be structured in three generations. A first generation is interested in experts as actors that have a causal influence on international politics. The second generation scrutinizes discourses of expertise and their constitutional role in making the international. And the third generation concentrates on practices of expertise and the way these perform the epistemic arrangements of the international. To think about the study of expertise in the frame of three generations each offering different insights and carrying advantages and problems provides not only a practical tool for sorting ideas, but clarifies what one ‘buys in’ by following a specific generation.
This paper explores the four difficulties of actor-network theory: the words "actor," "network," "theory," and the hyphen. The originality of ANT lies in the fact that this not so much an alternative social theory as it is a method of unravelling the activities of the actor who constructs their own world. By focusing on operations of structuring and summation rather than on concepts of "actor" and "network," we are able to show that the tension between the macro and the micro levels in the social sciences is largely artificial. ANT allows us to overcome this tension by channeling our attention away from objects and towards circulations instead. According to the author, the main contribution of this theory to the social sciences is the transformation of the social from the surface, territory, or region of reality into circulation. In the latter half of the paper, the author discusses the potential of ANT as a symmetrical anthropology of the modern and the defining structure of modernity. This implies accounting for the emergence of the ontological opposition between "out there" and "in there" (the nature and the subject), and (the deletion of) political and theological interests. The difference between ANT and many kinds of reflection on modernity, post-, hyper-, pre-, and antimodernity, is simply that it took to task simultaneously all of the components of what could be called the modernist predicament. According to the author, ANT is not a theory of the social any more than it is a theory of the subject, or a theory of God, or a theory of nature. It is a theory of the space or fluids circulating in a non-modern situation. In the conclusion of the article, the author offers an optimistic take on the potential of developing ANT further and giving it new forms.
How does the practice turn play out in international relations? This study offers a concise introduction to the core approaches, issues and methodology of International Practice Theory, examining the design, strategies and technique of practice theoretical research projects interested in global politics, and outlining issues for a future agenda. © Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger 2014. All rights reserved.
This chapter contributes to the literature on nuclear proliferation by bringing theoretical resources from political philosophy and science and technology studies (STS) to bear on perennial questions for scholars of international relations (IR): “Why do states build nuclear weapons?” and “How many nuclear weapons are enough to sustain a credible nuclear deterrent?” We argue that states build nuclear weapons when they perceive the benefits of creating and maintaining a nuclear arsenal as outweighing the costs. If, therefore, a state is able to reap the benefits of having a nuclear weapon without actually creating one, it will have no reason to forego membership in the Nonproliferation Treaty. Furthermore, states with latent nuclear weapon programs are already actively engaging in a form of “weaponless” nuclear deterrence. Far from existing only in imagination, the “virtual” arsenals of the future are already observable in the nuclear security strategies of non-nuclear weapon states today. In making this argument, we draw on emergent theories of nuclear technopolitics that focus on the ambivalence of nuclear technology in constituting the political field of interactions.
The use of indicators as a technique of global governance is increasing rapidly. Major examples include the World Bank's Doing Business Indicators, the World Bank's Good Governance and Rule of Law indicators, the Millennium Development Goals, and the indicators produced by Transparency International. Human rights indicators are being developed in the UN and regional and advocacy organizations. The burgeoning production and use of indicators has not, however, been accompanied by systematic comparative study of, or reflection on, the implications, possibilities, and pitfalls of this practice. This book furthers the study of these issues by examining the production and history of indicators, as well as relationships between the producers, users, subjects, and audiences of indicators. It also explores the creation, use, and effects of indicators as forms of knowledge and as mechanisms of making and implementing decisions in global governance. Using insights from case studies, empirical work, and theoretical approaches from several disciplines, the book identifies legal, policy, and normative implications of the production and use of indicators as a tool of global governance.