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Actor–Network Theory

Summary and Keywords

Actor–network theory (ANT) is an approach to research that sits with a broader body of new materialism; a body of work that displaces humanism to consider dynamic assemblages of humans and nonhumans. Originally developed in the social studies of science and technology undertaken in the second half of the 20th century, ANT has increasingly been taken up in other arenas of social inquiry. Researchers working with ANT do not accept the unquestioned use of “social” explanations for educational phenomena. Rather, the social, like all other effects, is taken to be an enactment of heterogenous assemblages of human and nonhuman entities. The role of the educational researcher is to trace these processes of assemblage and reassemblage, foregrounding the ways in which certain entities establish sufficient allies to assume some degree of “realness” in the world.

Aligning most closely with ethnographic orientations, ANT does not outline a method. However, it could be argued that a number of propositions are shared in ANT-inspired approaches: first, that the world is made up of actors/actants, all of which are ontologically symmetrical. Humans are not privileged in ANT. Second, the principle of irreduction—there is no essence within or beyond any process of assemblage. Actors are concrete; there is no “potential” other than their actions in the moment. Entities are nothing more than an effect of assemblage. Third, the concept of translation and its processes of mediation that transform objects when they encounter one another. Finally, the principle of alliance. Actants gain strength only through their alliances. These propositions have specific implications for data generation, analysis, and reporting.

Keywords: actor–network theory, ANT, materialism, mediation, actant, symmetry, irreduction, translation, alliance

Introducing Actor–Network Theory

Time and again, I have found that readers were puzzled not so much by our views on scientific practice [. . .] but rather by the unusual meaning we gave to the words “social” and “social explanation.”

(Latour, 2005/2007, p. ix)

This quote draws from the acknowledgments offered by Bruno Latour—one of the theorists most closely associated with the emergence of actor–network theory (ANT)—in his book Reassembling the Social, first published in 2005. As Latour explains, the book was the culmination of a process of formulation of an alternative social theory that had occurred over the previous decades but had not yet resulted in the publication of a systematic introduction. Over the preceding 30 years, Latour and others in the broader field of science and technology studies (Latour & Woolgar, 1986) had progressed a body of work—variously referred to as “a sociology of translations” (Callon, 1986), “a sociology of associations” (Latour, 2005), and material semiotics (Law, 2009)—that aimed to highlight and move beyond an uncritical use by commentators of “social” as an explanatory device.

For Latour, while the project of providing social explanations within social theory had been “productive and probably necessary in the past” (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 1), the evolution of the social sciences had moved beyond the capacity of the social to offer explanatory adequacy. As Woolgar (1996, p. 235) noted, the “history of methodological fashion in social science [was] already full of disappointments.” The work of ANT would be to step back from the notion of the social as “already stabilized,” to minutely trace the social’s connections, to “scrutinize more thoroughly the exact content of what is ‘assembled’ under the umbrella of a society” with an aim to “resume the traditional goal of the social sciences but with tools better adjusted to the task” (Latour, 2005/2007, pp. 1–2). For Latour, this required no less than both the object and the methodology of the social sciences, including education, be modified; in turn, this would require a “respecification” of key notions such as “social,” “society,” and “agency” (Woolgar, 1996, p. 235).

Despite its title, ANT is not a theory per se (Law, 2009); describing ANT abstractly “misses the point because it is not abstract but is grounded in empirical case studies” (Law, 2009, p. 141). Actor–network theory is completely infused in the empirical (Law & Mol, 2006): it maintains a focus on how things in the lived world come to assume—and sometimes sustain—in particular forms and offers a set of provocations and concepts to look close at that “how.” Inasmuch as it is a theory at all, it is a theory of how to study things; “or rather how not to study them—or rather, how to let the actors have some room to express themselves” (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 142; emphasis in original). The social, for ANT, is the name given to momentary associations when fluid entities gather in a particular configuration (Mol & Law, 1994). It is an approach that is amendable to contexts where change is frequent, when innovations are prolific, and where multiple threads of relationship form and reform between heterogenous actors. In its focus on tracing and making explicit how a particular configuration has been assembled, how and by what it is held together, ANT makes apparent how things “could be otherwise.” In contexts such as education where wicked problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973) increasingly prevail, this “otherwise” can refer to different ideas, different priorities, different architecture, different values, different curriculum, different resources, different “standards,” different staff, and different notions of time and place. Indeed, the educational system itself as a key organizing structure of the world becomes amendable to change. To paraphrase Woolgar (1996, p. 237), ANT allows us to move beyond a line of argument that embodies

an unnecessarily restricted (and unnecessarily pessimistic) conception of [education]. It suggests that the [educator] can only consider alternative forms of [educational] organization when confronted by their contemporary empirical reality. But this underplays the potential contribution of anthropological investigations—the cultural relativism that tells us that [education] can be otherwise in other places. It also tends to denigrate the potential contribution of social history—the historical relativism that tells us that [education] can be otherwise at other times.

In large part, it is a broader engagement with the range of actors involved in assembling the social—its principle of symmetry between actors—that sets ANT apart and moves it beyond a simple acknowledgment of paradigms by Thomas Kuhn (1970).

The publication of Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts by Latour and Steve Woolgar in 1979 was a landmark in demonstrating the process by which data, evidence and, eventually, scientific “facts” are enacted in scientific research practice through processes of assemblage involving both humans and nonhumans. Appropriately, ANT in itself is also in the process of assemblage and reassemblage; as Tara Fenwick and Richard Edwards survey in the introduction of their 2017 collection, researchers have “stretched” and “blended” its provocations. For Fenwick and Edwards, what holds this array of approaches together is the use of language that draws from concepts originating in ANT: actants, sociomaterial networks, assemblage, symmetry, and so on.

Thus, actor–network theorists are fundamentally concerned with ensuring all actors—“objects, subjects, human beings, machines, animals, “nature,” ideas, organizations, inequalities, scale and sizes, and geographical arrangements” (Law, 2009)—are seen. ANT scholars thus use an alternate set of analytic categories to explore webs of relations (Woolgar, 1996). Methodologically, ANT focuses its attention on exploring and characterizing the process of “net-work.” The use of the hyphen here is illustrative: for Latour, “what is important in the word network is the word work” (Latour, 2004b, p. 83, emphasis in original). In 1996, Latour spoke to three misunderstandings about ANT that drew from the common usage of the word “network.” The first misunderstanding was to “give it a common technical meaning in the sense of a sewage, or train, or subway, or telephone ‘network.’” The second was that ANT had “very little to do with the study of social networks.” Studies of social networks focus on social relations of individual human actors while ANT “extends the word actor [. . .] to non-human, non-individual entities.” The third misunderstanding was that there “is nothing but net-works, there is nothing in between them, or, to use a metaphor from the history of physics, there is no aether in which networks should be immersed” (Latour, 1996, pp. 369–370).

Establishing the Need for a Sociology of Assemblage

In considering what actor–network theory (ANT) implies for methodology in educational research, Latour (2005/2007, p. 9) has written of his willingness to drop the “awkward, confusing, meaningless” name of actor–network theory until it was pointed out that the acronym, which made it an “ant,” was too fitting to abandon: an ant, in the literal sense, was a “blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, collective traveller,” and this evokes the closely detailed tracing required by the student working with ANT.

The idea is simple: if researchers need to understand what happens in any phenomenon, they have to find ways to explore the nature of sociality rather than assuming its prior existence. Latour’s injunction is to defer drawing on explanations of the social as a “specific type of causality” until such time as exploration has been conducted on how the social appears in a given form through a process of assemblage of many kinds of actants. Latour (2005/2007, pp. 54–55, emphasis added) took the term actant from the study of literature, given literary theorists’ far greater freedom of movement in considering issues of agency:

this is because, for instance in a fable, the same actant can be made to act through the agency of a magic wand, a dwarf, a thought in the fairy’s mind, or a knight killing two dozen dragons. Novels, plays and films from classical tragedy to comics provide a vast playground to rehearse accounts of what makes us act.

Actants are the full range of potential agents in the network; the actant may come to be seen to have a “performing part” (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010, p. 10) in the net-work. An actant is a semiotic definition, “something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general. An actant can literally be anything provided it is granted to be the source of an action” (Latour, 1996, p. 373, emphasis added).

In following actants to see how they become strategic through the interconnections they forge, there is no difference in the treatment of human and nonhuman actants. This is not to say that all actors are equal, that nonhuman actors are granted, by default, the same status as human actors: the researcher cannot assess the status of any actant in advance of the research. It is this willingness to suspend an assumption that nonhumans have less intentionality and should only appear as “window dressing,” or “background,” that sets ANT apart. Methodologically, this means tracking actants as they create, advance, or frustrate some collective task (Latour, 1991).

The relevance of a stronger engagement with nonhuman actors in school education is, at some level, already clearly established. As Waltz (2006, p. 52) notes, educators are not only “surrounded by things” (he lists textbooks, lab equipment, educational media, administrative schedules, policy documents, and school buildings), there has also been fundamental and sustained interest in educational tools that pervade preservice training and pedagogy (e.g., Froebel gifts, Montessori materials, Piagetian research manipulatives, Skinner’s teaching machine, the Hunter lesson plan format, and the interface of various learning management systems). Other actors are readily identifiable as a source of action: timetables, school bells, curriculum documents, school inspections, rankings, uniforms, and so on. As Waltz argues, some “major players” in the history of education are often “mere set pieces” in educational sociology; while it is generally accepted that the social is constructed, the active role of nonhuman actors in the process of construction and the ways they make other agents act is often rendered invisible before the event. For ANT, all actors must be traced to establish how they acquire allies and in the process becoming “real,” at least for as long as they maintain their allies.

The case for such a sociology of assemblage is, however, not at the cost of the established approaches of sociology or more conventional approaches to research in the social sciences more generally (Law, 2004); such a “sociology of the social” has already proved its worth when the area of concern has already been assembled. Rather, the argument is for greater methodological variety (Law, 2004). For Fenwick and Edwards (2010), ANT is as an array of practices for approaching complexity in the modern world. In situations where innovation is central, where boundaries are unknown, and where new connections are becoming apparent, what is already part of the social—collectively recognized and commonly understood—and what is not becomes increasingly difficult to trace. As a methodological framework, ANT is

about a network-tracing activity. As I said above, there is not a net and an actor laying down the net, but there is an actor whose definition of the world outlines, traces, delineates, describes, files, lists, records, marks or tags a trajectory that is called a network. No net exists independently of the very act of tracing it, and no tracing is done by an actor exterior to the net. A network is not a thing, but the recorded movement of a thing.

(Latour, 1996, p. 368)

As Harding (1987) notes, one of the key contributions to current thinking around knowledge practices made by writers such as Deleuze, Guattari, and Foucault was a disruption of “methodolatory.” ANT adopts a methodological approach that aligns with this disruption; it demands “a rejection of all forms of slavishness in favour of (liberating) creativity. [. . .] Its insistent question is ‘how does it work?’” (Buchanan, 2000, p. 8). These approaches to knowledge generation align with a move toward posthumanism and away from requirements based in Enlightenment humanism (St. Pierre, 2004). For Woolgar, this shift is at the base of one of two main, interrelated objections to ANT. The first objection is that an appeal to symmetry and the equation of human and nonhuman actors must result in a framework that can only ever be metaphorical. ANT’s empirical focus undermines this objection: in reserving judgment until the actors have been traced, the active role of nonhumans in our “real” life has been demonstrated. The second objection—the objection that concerns us here—is that the radical symmetry undermines the “humanistic potential” of the social sciences (Woolgar, 1996, pp. 249–251). In this, ANT is its own best ally. If the basis of change is social, then the challenge is for actor–network theorists to draw on its concepts to win allies and create optimal change conditions by way of a more complex understanding of how the social is assembled and, accordingly, opening space for more layered and effective policies for change.

Key Concepts

In Part One of his work Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Graham Harman (2009, pp. 14–15) provides a detailed overview of the metaphysics that underpin an ANT perspective. Harman notes Latour’s insistence “that we cannot philosophize from raw first principles but must follow objects in action and describe what we see.” There are, however, a set of provocations that can focus the attention of the researcher: first, that the world is made up of actors/actants, often also referred to as “objects” or “things,” all of which are “on exactly the same ontological footing”: “actors and molecules are actants, as are children, raindrops, bullet trains, politicians, and numerals”; second, a principle of irreduction: “no object is reducible or irreducible to any other,” even if we do attempt explanations such as attributing religion to “social factors.” Such explanations must “do the work of showing how one can be transformed into the other.” This flags the third principle, translation, and the processes of mediation that transform objects. Finally, there is a principle of alliance. A sociology of association does not assume one object to be inherently stronger than another. From this perspective a Ministry of Education is not more powerful than a teacher: “actants gain in strength only through their alliances. As long as no one reads Mendel’s papers, his breakthroughs in genetics remain weak.”

Thus, ANT as an approach is focused on rendering visible a diverse range of actors and exploring their work of translation as either intermediaries or mediators. According to Latour (2005/2007, pp. 38–40), an entity that is an intermediary “transports meaning or force without transformation”: whatever is its input will also be its output. Intermediaries are rare; very few objects exert no influence whatsoever by their presence in a given network. Intermediaries can project an appearance of solidity—an appearance Latour refers to as a “black box”—notwithstanding the complexity of what assembles them (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 39). This appearance of solidity can act to choke innovation. Black boxes are “low maintenance” and, in this, appeal as being something we can “rely on” (Harman, 2009, p. 37).

There are, however, endless mediators that “transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning of the elements they are supposed to carry” (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 39). A mediator is always complex, no matter how simple it may look. The distinction between intermediaries and mediators is important in understanding how the social is assembled and where we may intervene in the pursuit of change: “If some ‘social factor’ is transported through intermediaries, then everything important is in the factor, not in the intermediaries. For all practical purposes, it can be substituted by them without any loss of the nuances” (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 105).

The concept of mediation can, and must, be further differentiated to consider the different ways that nonhumans can “make” us act. Latour (1993, pp. 178–190) outlines four meanings of mediation. First, mediation can relate to interference whereby each agent interferes with, or translates, the original goal of the other. Second, mediation can relate to composition and the way in which the composite goal becomes the common achievement of each of the agents. The third meaning of mediation references the process of black boxing: the more something succeeds, the less it can be understood as attention need focus only on inputs and outputs rather than the complexity that inheres between input and output. A black box appearance gives the impression that things are naturally and inevitably just as they are, the smooth exterior obscuring the internal machinations. The fourth and most important meaning of mediation is delegation: the way both meaning and expression are delegated to nonhuman objects. Delegation illuminates how a “prime mover” can be absent, yet present: it acknowledges that a long ago action of an actor can remain active in our day-to-day lives (Latour, 1993). In this, delegation describes the reciprocity between the social and the technical: when we used standardized tests, a major task becomes a small effort. All the effort is “delegated” to the “others” (human and nonhuman) who have assembled the standardized test. Yet, in using that test, our actions as educators are limited. Now the test—assembled in a context far removed in time and place—makes us act in particular ways for particular reasons that may depart from those we ourselves would identify.

On Method

In keeping with its ontological underpinnings, ANT does not provide a detailed method (Fenwick, Edwards, & Sawchuk, 2011). Yet—in an apt example of the ways mediators act—concepts such as Callon’s (1986) “four moments of translation” have at times been translated into somewhat formulaic applications: “ANTish” in name, but somewhat in tension with early ANT conceptualizations. While acknowledging such developments, McLean and Hassard (2004) suggest that such “framework” approaches can be viewed as heuristics or “sensitizing” concepts to aide in analyzing complex observations. What remains constant in ANT accounts is a concern to be attentive to all the actors, how those actors come together and “act on” one another, the ways this “translation” occurs, and the processes by which researchers are able to trace, and convey, these assemblages while working within the limits of knowledge and reality that are “set by particular and specific sets of inscription devices” (Law, 2004, p. 35, emphasis in original). As an approach to researching social factors as they come to be assembled and, at times, assume some degree of fixity, the primary concern is to “follow” all the actors—human and nonhuman, mediators and intermediaries—that constitute the social.

The challenge in pursuing this primary concern is immediately apparent. Perhaps because of this lack of “a” method, or perhaps as a reflection of the existing presence of “networks” as a form of “institutionalized utopianism” (Riles, 2000) for education practitioners (Frankham, 2006), the uptake of ANT in educational research has taken time (Fenwick et al., 2011). Given its ontological underpinnings, ANT researchers confront a more complex manifestation of the issue encountered by all qualitative researchers: where and how to draw boundaries for their work. Research is, of necessity, bounded. Yet boundedness sits in tension with the heterogeneity, fluidity, and multiplicity that of necessity inheres in research that begins with a commitment to a sociology of assemblage. This tension requires that researchers are both explicit about how they “cut the network” (Strathern, 1996) and about how their act of cutting “enacts the effects of their own research in certain ways” (Fenwick et al., 2011, p. 102). ANT demands that researchers show these effects using means that move beyond conventional concepts of reflexivity. For Sriprakash and Mukopadhyay (2015, p. 232), such a move means reframing reflexivity as “a means of apprehending the interplay of a multiplicity of actors”; within this multiplicity, the researcher acts as both a mediator and a translator.

Field observation using an ethnographic ethos is the most central data generation technique for the ANT researcher. As documented from the opening pages of the seminal text Laboratory Life (Latour & Woolgar, 1986), sustained immersion in the world of study is a constant feature of ANT accounts. Data will be recorded through systematic note-taking or video-recording of naturalistic activity as it plays out. Documents and visual and digital artifacts will be gathered including, for example, policy documents, media commentaries, statistical data, and research reports. Human actors will be engaged in conversation including, but not limited to, formal interviews in which they can narrate how “they perform the mundane minutiae of taken-for-granted practices, and their reasons for making small choices” (Fenwick et al., 2011, p. 122). The focus of these conversations is not on what the actions mean for human actors; for ANT, the focus is on what entities do, how they do it, and why they do it as they do (Latour, 1999). In other words, the focus is on how people are situated within assemblages, including attention to how they are situated within the research process itself (Juelskjaer, 2013). In keeping with the necessity of reflexivity, autoethnography is also evident in materialist studies.

John Law provides an eloquent example of how what he defines as “method assemblage” occurs, and how it is represented. In After Method (2004), he relates a longitudinal ethnographic study in a large scientific facility in the United Kingdom. He narrates his year of watching researchers working on experiments, sitting with technicians on a daily basis, interviewing a range of staff, and attending management meetings. Law (2004, pp. 107–108) notes the tracings the ethnographer has to create: “meetings, activities, experiments, disasters, triumphs, comings, goings, arguments, friendships, documents, policies, programmes, aspirations, promotions, conferences, memos, cups of coffee—all of these and much more were included in the daily round of laboratory work.” The facility where the research was located operated both day and night and, by the second year, the effect of the “incessant demand of ethnography” became “overwhelming.” Law articulates the importance of his subsequent reflection on this: “in the ethnographic method assemblage the practices that I needed to make certain silences and unrealities were not in place. [. . .] what I needed was a better tuned and more discriminating method assemblage” (Law, 2004, p. 108, original emphasis). For Law, this involved, for instance, more note-taking and less audio-recording: in this, much was “routinely Othered,” resulting in a “condensate of traces” and the emergence of “patterns in laboratory reality,” patterns that are discoverable in other gathered data and that acted as “signals” of what should be followed.

Drawing on their overview of ANT in educational research, Fenwick et al. (2011, p. 122) suggest how researchers may find their own way into an ethnographic method assemblage:

one is to choose a site and just sit in it for a while or wander about in it, watching, listening, thinking, perhaps talking with people in the site, until something of interest emerges. Some researchers, such as Roth (1996), wait and watch for a “tracer” to emerge, an object (tool, idea, text, etc.) that appears to move and organize activity throughout the site. Or one could follow a device across time, as Nespor (2010) does in his study of interactive video and how it was implicated in educational change. Some choose a device or text and appears to be exercising particular force in transforming practices and beliefs, such as Hamilton (2009) in her studies of the work performed by the individual learning plan in literacy education. Others look for a space where various flows appear to converge in a way that orders who systems, such as Clarke (2002) in her study of the proliferation of new literary policies, or Fenwick (2010) in her examination of a province-wide educational reform for school improvement through teacher-directed inquiry projects.

As these entry points indicate, the range of topics that have been explored using ANT is wide. Cormack and Comber (1996) illustrate how policy documents construct authorized versions of subject, teacher, and student. Other examples include Nespor (2002), who studied the effects of standardized tests as extended networks of process and evaluation that assemble materials and people, including the testers themselves. Waltz’s (2006) research focused on a library program where children read aloud to dogs, in the process highlighting how the active role of the child, the dog, and the book are necessary to an understanding of the program. In 2009, Mary Hamilton’s work on assessment used ANT to reveal the inconsistencies and contradictions of assessment practices. O’Brien and Brancalone (2011) engaged with ANT to highlight how learning outcomes are not simply a tool used by a human actor but, rather, are clearly involved, if not privileged, in educational action, while Radhika Gorur (2017) has taken an ANTian approach to explore how educators may more productively critique large-scale comparisons as a dominant policy phenomenon that has profound consequences at the level of the local. Mulcahy and Morrison (2017) foreground relations of space and power in infrastructure in their study of innovative learning environments. Kamp (2017b) has used ANT to explore the mediation of workplace learning in the context of the senior school curriculum as well as the leadership implications of the take-up of collaboration and partnership in diverse education policy contexts (Kamp, 2017a).

Signposts to Support Researchers

In 2005, Latour brought together his reflections on ANT as a methodological orientation, authoring what he refers to as a travel guide to navigate the “messy” approach to research that has been introduced. As described, ANT has some parallel with ethno-methodologies of various kinds but efforts to articulate “the” ANT approach risk its becoming mobilized in the very kind of rigid, methodological framework that it critiques. As presented by Latour (2005/2007), five “sources of uncertainty” can be used as signposts to avoid an overly hasty use of social explanations.

No Group, Only Group Formation

Latour’s first source of uncertainty—no group, only group formation—signposts how to think about where to begin a research journey. Commonly, researchers commence by defining both the topic that is of interest and the level of analysis that will be undertaken. For ANT, researchers must begin by following the actors through “the traces left behind by their activity of forming and dismantling groups” (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 29). In other words, rather than working within established ontological categories and exploring connections between only those human actors that are accepted, the researcher must focus on tracking the assemblage as it appears—and disappears—in the process of relationship and connection. Critically, the actors we should follow are not only human:

It is so crucial not to begin with a pronouncement of the sort: “Social aggregates are mainly made of (x).” It makes no difference if (x) stands for “individual agent,” “organizations,” “races,” “small bands,” “states,” “persons,” “members,” “will power,” “libido,” “biographies,” “fields,” etc.

(Latour, 2005/2007, p. 30, original emphasis)

In a sociology of associations, the “duty” of forming a group falls not to some wise-before-the-event researcher but to the actants. Tracing the process of gathering of humans and nonhumans is powerful because more “traces” are left while things are moving than are left by established “things” that have finished assembling, have solidified, moved from the molecular to the molar, and become “mute” (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 31). This is not to say that categorization must be avoided. Rather, categories cannot be taken for granted and imposed before the event (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010). Over time, a group will define its boundaries for itself and appear. Only at this point does it become a bona fide part of “the social” and, paradoxically, its room to innovate is compromised as new associations are no longer being formed: its “becoming” replaced by “being.”

This process of tracing group formation is powerful because, for Latour (2005/2007, pp. 31–33), a number of entities are always present and they can be followed in forming our account. First, groups are made to talk—there is always a spokesperson who “speaks for” the group’s existence. Also always present is the process of Othering. Thus, for every group to be defined, a list of anti-groups is formed. Once the boundary is defined, some actants are “in” (commonly a subset of human actors only) and other actants are not “in,” are beyond our concern. By this process the group is “fixed” and rendered manageable and accountable. Finally, always present are professionals (including, of course, researchers) who are mobilized and who are “part and parcel of what makes the group exist, last, decay, or disappear.”

Action Is Overtaken

An “actor” in the hyphenated expression actor-network is not the source of an action but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it. To retrieve its multiplicity, the simplest solution is to reactivate the metaphors implied in the word actor [. . .]. To use the word “actor” means that it’s never clear who and what is acting when we act since an actor on stage is never alone in acting.

(Latour, 2005/2007, p. 46)

The second source of uncertainty encourages researchers to closely examine who is acting when action occurs. Here the actor–network researcher labors to draw attention to a long-standing problem for the social sciences, that is, the understanding that we are never alone in carrying out a given course of action. In the social sciences there has tended to become an assumption that a force—be it society, culture, subjectivity, social, class, government, market forces, the education system—has taken over, that action is “mysteriously carried out” and then distributed to others (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 45). In working to overcome this problem, ANT troubles any premature assumption of social forces by following the trail to discover the full array of who and what is acting when the group acts. This, in turn, opens space for change: actants can be assembled in new ways, can allow for new possibilities of action. The travel book encourages the researcher in “remaining puzzled” about how actors that make us act actually make us act, and this can only be done by researchers making explicit traces of the “hesitations actors themselves feel about the ‘drives’ that make them act” and keeping these traces as “our most cherished treasure” (Latour, 2005/2007, pp. 47–48). This requires that researchers hear not only those causes well-known in the “few words of the social vocabulary” but also the idiosyncratic terms and theories offered by the actors themselves in regard to the full range and nature of mediators in the action.

Objects Too Have Agency

Latour’s third source of uncertainty concerns the range of actors at work in any consideration of “the social.” In ANT, there is a concern with the implements that “modify a state of affairs by making a difference to an actor” (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 71). This does not imply a simple reversal of the norm, suggesting nonhumans fully determine the action. What it means is “that there might exist many metaphysical shades between full causality and sheer inexistence.” Thus, the list of verbs to describe what actants do has to be expanded beyond the one extreme of “provide background” and the other extreme of “determine” to include “allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid and so on” (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 72).

Consequentially, researchers need an extended range of tools that allow objects to enter into their research accounts. All researchers consider the techniques they may use to ensure research participants have voice: the format and context of interview schedules are carefully considered, deliberations taken on whether to offer incentives, and so on. For Latour, however, parallel techniques need to be applied in getting objects to tell their stories: “objects, no matter how important, efficient, central or necessary they may be, tend to recede into the background very fast [. . .] and the greater their importance, the faster they disappear” (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 80). The guidebook offers a number of approaches. Researchers can follow those actants that are at the center of innovation as this is where translations will be witnessed: these often appear in policy texts, meetings, plans, trials, policy pilots, and so on. Researchers can also interrogate situations when what is “normal” in practice begins to appear exotic by virtue of distance in learning, space, or time. Here, there is an affinity with Foucault’s concept of “genealogy”: an “effective history,” and this is sought “in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history” (Foucault, 1971/1994, p. 351). Another approach can be to explore accidents and breakdowns which render visible what objects do when they “break other actors down.” Archives can bring the “receding objects” of the past into current explorations—a key approach for ANT that re-renders visible the complex processes of assemblage in all its complexity that final accounts so commonly strip away. Finally, Latour notes that fiction can be used to bring voice to entities commonly considered mute in the “real” world (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 82).

Matters-of-Fact or Matters-of-Concern

The fourth source of uncertainty leads to a suggestion that agencies are engaged with “matters-of-concern” rather than “matters-of-fact.” Here, Latour draws on the way that scientific knowledge, including social scientific knowledge, is constructed in scientific practice. In their seminal work, Latour and Woolgar (1986) presented a detailed account of moves by which “facts” are fabricated in scientific laboratories: from desks as hubs of productive units, by way of inscription devices where objects of interest are progressively transformed into texts which are then taken up and used by others, and the process by which the precarious process of producing this “trace” of the object of interest gradually melts away.

ANT suggests the controversies of science studies offer insights through which researchers in other disciplines can gain a perspective that matters of “fact” do not describe a “unified reality.” This is not to say that facts do not exist; rather, it is an invitation to trouble premature notions of indisputability:

Where matters-of-fact have failed, let’s try what I have called matters-of-concern. [. . .] For too long, objects have been wrongly portrayed as matters-of-fact. [. . .] They are much more interesting, variegated, uncertain, complicated, far reaching, heterogeneous, risky, historical, local, material and networking than the pathetic version offered for too long by philosophers. [. . .] “Facts are facts are facts”? Yes, but they are also a lot of other things in addition.

(Latour, 2005, p. 19)

The idea of matters-of-concern invites researchers to expose the messy nature of assemblages and to render visible the work that goes into sustaining a given assemblage. In this, ANT works beyond Foucault’s (2007) formulation of critique as being a process in which there is room to experiment with the limits of how we are governed in a given way, in relation to a given end (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010). Indeed, for Latour “the critic is not the one who debunks but the one who assembles [. . .] the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather” (Latour, 2004a, p. 246); in this, ANTian researchers can hold matters-of-concern “open” to explore how they have been assembled and their inherent potential to be reassembled.

Writing Risky Accounts

Latour’s fifth uncertainty is fundamental in that it illustrates how ANT accounts in themselves are not intermediaries, they are mediators: they transform the meaning of the elements they carry (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 40). ANT reminds us that texts must allow the process of assembling the social to appear; in this approach, objective accounts are achieved through actors being scrupulously followed “all the way to the final report”: our reports, in whatever form they are presented, must make apparent the “string of actions where each participant [human and non-human, subject and author] is treated as a full-blown mediator” (Latour, 2005/2007, p. 128). For Kamp (2006), reaching for this “objective account” required a weaving metaphor—the weaver of a cartoon not of one’s own design, within a frame designed by far distant others, using and being used by various looms, diverse threads, tangled edges, bobbins left dangling—to hold on to the various forms of assemblage, complexity, doubt, and relationship, demonstrating manifestations of mediation in the process. The challenges of devising research accounts that convey the “flickering” nature of performance (Law, 2004) are now well-rehearsed; these challenges are rendered even more complex when nonhuman actants are granted symmetry. For McLean and Hassard (2004), the best that can be achieved is “fractional” ways of telling that allow multiple entry points to multiple worlds. There is no “right” way, no form of discourse or literary technique: the right way, form, or technique is that which enables us to get as close as we can to adequately conveying gathering, assemblages, and lines of flight. And this injunction holds even if, perhaps most urgently if, this means transgressing the “permissible” academic forms which entrench what is already argued to be “known”:

The texts that carry academic stories tend to organize phenomena bewildering in their layered complexity into clear overviews. They make smooth schemes that are more or less linear, with a demonstrative or an argumentative logic in which each event follows the one that came before. What may originally have been surprising is explained and is therefore no longer surprising or disturbing. Academic texts may talk about strange things, but their tone is almost always calm.

(Law & Mol, 2006, p. 3)

Exit Point

In their reviews of actor–network theory (ANT) in education published in 2010 and 2017, Tara Fenwick and Richard Edwards suggested that while the social sciences in general—and sociology, human geography, and technology studies in particular—have increasingly explored the potential of ANT in their efforts to construct accounts of the social, in education there had been, until recently, relatively little work using this inspiration. Yet, education could be argued to be well-aligned to a sociology of associations given its fundamental commitment to change and the sheer range of actors that are of necessity fully involved in that change. These forms of research aim to counter “blindness” to the agency of nonhuman objects and the consequent “romanticizing” of humans and their practice (Leander & Lovvorn, 2006, p. 301). In offering a more complete overview of the sources of action, there is increased potential to avoid policy interventions that are overly focused on humans—teachers, students and their families, school leaders—rather than attending to the distributed effects through which the world is assembled. ANT offers educational researchers a way to better understand the actions of the full range of actors and how that action is undertaken through the work of the myopic, slow, ANT.

To add in a messy way to a messy account of a messy world does not seem like a very grandiose activity. But we are not after grandeur: the goal is to produce a science of the social uniquely suited to the specificity of the social in the same way that all other sciences had to invest devious and artificial ways to be true to the specific phenomena on which they wished to get a handle on.

(Latour, 2005/2007, p. 136)

Further Reading

Fenwick, T., & Edwards, R. (2017). Re-visiting actor–network theory in education. London, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

    Kamp, A. (2017). Humans, nonhumans and the mediation of workplace learning in the senior school curriculum. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 69(2), 214–228.Find this resource:

      Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor–network theory. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

        Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

          Law, J. (2007). Actor network theory and material semiotics. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, Lancaster, U.K.Find this resource:


            Buchanan, I. (2000). Deleuzism: A metacommentary. Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press.Find this resource:

              Callon, M. (1986). Some elements of a sociology of translation: Domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay. In J. Law (Ed.), Power, action and belief: A new sociology of knowledge. London, U.K.: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Find this resource:

                Clarke, J. (2002). A new kind of symmetry: Actor-network theories and the new literacy studies. Studies in the Education of Adults, 34(2), 107–122.Find this resource:

                  Cormack, P., & Comber, B. (1996). Writing the teacher: The South Australian junior primary English teacher, 1962–1995. In B. Green & C. Beavis (Eds.), Teaching the English subjects: Essays on English curriculum history and Australian schooling (pp. 118–144). Geelong, Australia: Deakin University Press.Find this resource:

                    Fenwick, T. (2010). Reading educational reform with actor network theory: Fluid spaces, otherings, and ambivalences. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43, 114–134.Find this resource:

                      Fenwick, T., & Edwards, R. (2010). Actor-network theory in education. London, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

                        Fenwick, T., & Edwards, R. (2017). How is actor-network theory contributing to educational research? A critical revisitation. In T. Fenwick & R. Edwards (Eds.), Re-visiting actor-network theory in education. London, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

                          Fenwick, T., Edwards, R., & Sawchuk, P. (2011). Emerging approaches to educational research: Tracing the sociomaterial. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

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