What is Actor Network Theory? Why could it be a useful tool for both studying and doing media management?
Actor Network Theory (abbreviated as ANT) emerged primarily from the work of the sociologists Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law. Law has defined it as a “heterogonous work in progress” (Howecroft and Trauth, 2005, p.254) rather than a fixed body of theory, but it has become adopted as a theory and has become influential across a wide range of disciplines (Fallan, 2008, p.47). This essay will first of all outline Actor Network Theory in the context of the work of Latour and his development of ‘assemblage theory’ from the work of Deleuze and Guattari. This necessitates a brief outline of Spinoza’s impact on definitions of organization and the body. The essay then focuses more in detail on how ACT has been used to define society, and some of its key elements such as ‘translation’, which requires an unpacking of the terminology, employed by Callon and Latour, of ‘problematisation’, ‘interessement’, ‘enrolment’, and ‘mobilization’. After defining what Actor Network Theory is, the essay then goes on to consider if it could indeed be a useful tool for both studying and doing media management. It does this through an analysis of criticisms of the theory and responses to these criticisms. These include the role of agency in the network, the relation between human and non-human agents, the possible position of morality, change, emergence and notions of democracy. It concludes that Actor Network Theory is a useful tool for both studying and doing media management as it allows a move away from thinking of organizations as fixed monolithic power structures, and a focus on processes of change and complexity, which are vital for company innovation. These changes take place through relations and networks of which the student or media manager is a part. They must, therefore, account for and understand these processes, even though they may not be able to fully control them.
Latour’s work is motivated by redefining the concept of ‘the social’ to account for the potentially shifting nature of relations between states of affairs:
A new vaccine is being marketed, a new job description is being offered, a new political movement is being created…In each instance we have to reshuffle our conceptions of what was associated together because the previous definition has been made somewhat irrelevant. (2005, p.6)
It is clear from this analysis that Latour’s use of ‘the social’ is wide-ranging, encapsulating not only political movements but also medicinal developments or inter-organizational bureaucracy. What links these however, is not that some are social and some not, but they can all be understood as forms of inter-connected networks, or what Deleuze and Guattari define as ‘assemblages’ – groups of inter-related objects, forces, relations, speeds or affects that are defined not in terms of what they mean but more in terms of what potential new connections they can form:
A book is an assemblage of this kind…we will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities. (2004, p.4)
As Delezue and Guattari go on to explain, this relies on a Spinozan understanding of Ethics, where a body is defined not in terms of what it is but of what it can do:
These aggregates [parts of the body] are parts of each other depending on the composition of the relation that defines the individuated assemblage of the body. We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects…either to destroy that body…or to join with it in composing a more powerful body. (2004, pp.283-284)
In adopting this terminology of the assemblage, Latour draws on this philosophy, and allows for a focus on networks of relations rather than individual objects. This has the effect of removing a transcendent frame of judgement. We do not look down on a state of affairs and name it as social, but its very ‘socialness’ is produced through its specific combination of relations (Latour, 2005, p.7). It also has the effect of placing individual events into much larger frameworks of which they are a part, are effected by, and effect. This focus on ‘social relations’ (Latour, 2005, p.9) is fundamental to an understanding of Actor Network Theory. The way it is used to define society is elaborated by Howcroft and Trauth:
ANT perceives contemporary society as constituted by heterogeneous collectivities of people, technology, machines and objects. These collectivities are theorized as networks of actors (human and non-human), each of which is itself the effect of a network of heterogonous elements – hence ‘actor network’ theory, for each actor is also a network. (2005, p.254)
Key elements of ANT can be seen in this description. Relationality is highlighted, rather than individuality. There is no hierarchy between human and non-human actors as both, as “actants” (Latour, 2005, p.76) are given equal weight. The emphasis on heterogeneity suggests the prioritizing of difference and process over staticity or homogeneity. To consider the theory in more detail, certain terms must be understood. ‘Translation’ is used by Latour to describe “a relation that does not transport causality but induces two mediators into coexisting” (2005, p.108). In other words, this defines the processes of production of intermediaries between actors in the network – which could be people, texts or objects, which define and redefine relations between them through their movement. Callon has defined translation in terms of four movements (Callon, 1986). The first is ‘problematisation’ where actors have to realize that they are “allies in a shared problem” (Howcroft and Trauth, 2005, p.254). ‘Interessement’ then involves negotiating roles and convincing the actors that their roles are acceptable, “in order to organize the alliances it needs, the [network] must show that it is indispensable to those whose support it seeks” (Callon, Lascoumes and Barthe, 2009, p.62). In ‘enrolment’ actors accept their roles and then are ‘mobilized’ into active support (Callon, 1986).
Can Actor Network Theory, then, be a useful tool for both studying and doing media management? In order to address this question, criticisms that have been made of ACT must be taken on board. One is the misunderstanding of what is meant by the term ‘network’. As Latour points out in his ‘clarifications’ of Actor Network Theory, the network must not be understood simply as a ‘social network’, which would be relations only between human actors, but in a far more wide-ranging sense to include forces, systems and non-human agents as well (Latour, 1997). This, however, leads to a further criticism. ACT has been criticized, for example, for the way that it treats human and non-human actors the same unhierarchical way, and for the assumption following from this that non-human actors should have agency in the same way as human actors (Howcroft and Trauth, 2005, p.254). Latour responds to both elements of this critique, arguing that ACT “is not the establishment of some absurd symmetry between humans and non-humans” (2005, p.76). It is not a case of creating symmetry, in other words, but in completely redefining the terms of relation. Agency, for Latour is not a product of human will, and neither is a product of some kind of ‘non-human will’ but instead it emerges from the network itself. Organizational agency emerges from the whole structure of relations in which that organization is embedded. This shift away from the individual, despite acting as a potential difficulty for studying or doing media management, allows for a more complex focus on how organizations act, what effects this has, and, ultimately, how new strategies can be developed in order for them to be managed.
Another criticism is that ACT is ‘amoral’, it simply describes networks of power without taking any moral stance on them (Latour, 2005, p.78). This, again, seems to be a case of trying to impose a different structure onto the actor network. Morality requires an external transcendental point, from which one can judge and make decisions on what is right and wrong. From the perspective of the network, on the other hand, these decisions will emerge from the network itself. A transcendental notion of ‘morality’ is replaced by the Spinozan sense of ‘ethics’ outlined above – an organization is defined not in terms of whether it is good or bad but in terms of what effects it can have. As Latour phrases it, “there is no metalanguage” (1997) in which one can stand outside of the organization and moralize. While this can be frustrating for both studying and doing media management, where a transcendent position is normally assumed, it could also be liberating, realizing that the student or media manager is another actor in the network, implicated in its collective agency, making alliances, effecting and being effected by other elements of relevant institutional networks. This, as ACT theorists such as Barry have argued, allows for processes outside of one’s control to be taken into account. When Barry describes Europe he argues that “policy was…not so much about making decisions but …mobilizing alliances to take account of new social and environmental realities” (2002, p.150). ACT, here, allows an understanding of processes of change and shifting realities, rather than superimposing a pre-existing framework of knowledge onto a subject. This, again, makes it useful for studying and doing media management. A criticism of this however, could be that it does not fully account for power structures that exist already. The response to this would be that ACT focuses on the emergence of the new, rather than what pre-exists. Callon, Lascoumes and Barthe argue, for example, that it frees researchers from monolithic grand narratives that are used to conceal mobility and flexibility (2009, p.225). This, they argue, creates a more democratic system, “ACT can make a powerful contribution to the enrichment of democratic institutions” (p.225).
So, bearing all of these criticisms, and their responses, in mind, it seems that Actor Network Theory creates a paradox for management theory and practice. It demands a shift in the frame of what can and cannot be taken into account (Callon, Lascoumes and Barthe, 2009, p.236), which creates a focus on more complex systems. The ‘management of complexity’ then becomes vital and the contradictions of this are outlined clearly by Callon. On one hand, he argues:
To survive, the firm has to allow complexity to proliferate. If demand is to emerge and be satisfied, the firm needs to encourage the exchange of information among increasing numbers of actors, to facilitate negotiations that lead to compromises, and to allow the possibility of mobilizing novel resources. This is the basis of innovation, and it is how firms obtain a competitive advantage. (2002, p.192)
ACT becomes a way of understanding and managing complexity, and therefore maximizing profit, innovation and competitive advantage. On the other hand, as Callon goes on, “this growing complexity also has to be controlled if the firm is to maintain a hold over the process and profit from innovation” (2002, p.192). Ways of managing complex systems must be produced, which can account for a networked concept of knowledge and organizational agency in such a way that innovation can be maximized. However, with no transcendent point of control, such management must also account for ways for controlling from within the network. For these reasons, Actor Network Theory is a useful tool for studying and doing media management as it allows not only a greater understanding of networks of power, but can also be used to develop new modes of controlling this power and reshaping management discourse appropriately.
Barry, A. (2002) ‘In the middle of the network’, in J.Law and A.Mol (Eds.) Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices. Duke University Press, pp.142-165.
Callon, M. (1986) ‘Some elements of a sociology of translation’ in J.Law (Ed.) Power, Action, Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge.
Callon, M. (2002) ‘Writing and (Re)writing devices as tools for managing complexity’ in J.Law and A.Mol (Eds.) Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices. Duke University Press, pp.191-217.
Callon, M., Lascoumes, P. and Barthe, Y. (2009) Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2004) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum.
Fallan, K. (2008) ‘An ANT in out pants? A design historian;s reflection on actor network theory’ in J.Glynne, F. Hackney and V.Minto (Eds.) Networks of Design: Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference. Florida: Universal, pp.46-52.
Howcroft, D. and Trauth, E.M. (2005) Handbook of Critical Information Systems Research: Theory and Application. Chichester: Edward Elgar.
Latour, B. (2005) Re-assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory, Oxford: OUP.
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