Latour's Actor Network Theory

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Latour's Actor Network Theory (ANT) is a way of looking at the various systems and environments we encounter in our lives. In this lesson, we will discuss what the theory proposes, and how we might use it in our lives.

What is Latour's Actor Network Theory (ANT)?

'I can't make this stupid machine work! I've been fighting with this copier for an hour, and I'm convinced that it's demon-possessed! Here, see what you can do with it!'

Does any of this frustration feel familiar? It's easy to assume, when we're looking at a part of any system, that there is only one dimension, only one type of thing, related to that system. For example, when you're staring at a photocopier, it's easy to think that you're looking at a mechanical system only. If the machine's in perfect order, the copies should come out the way they're supposed to. If the machine's broken, they don't.

But is is really that simple, or are there more pieces in the puzzle that might stop the photocopier from working? What about people who've mishandled it in the past? Or faulty technological connections? Or maybe even biological problems (such as bugs under the pushbuttons)? What if the problem is you? Did you press the right buttons to make the copies? Many factors affect any system you might encounter, and it is useful to look at the big picture to determine what those factors might be.

Latour's Actor Network Theory (ANT) proposes that any system we encounter can most effectively be approached if we look at all of the parts--whether they're natural, technological, or human--as interacting and active members of the system. According to ANT, each human, each piece of technology, and each natural factor (such as sunlight, air movement, temperature, etc.) has an equal part to play in the system, and must be considered.

In this theory, every situation that occurs may be referred to as a network (a group of elements that interconnect and affect each other), composed of actants (parts of the network that have some role to play) and connections (ways that the parts interact).

According to ANT,

  • all actants are presupposed to be equally important participants
  • actants are measured and valued only by how they interact in the system
  • intermediaries are actants that do not tend to change the system
  • mediators are actants that do cause changes in the system

Applying Latour's ANT Principles to Our Lives

Because ANT is largely a point of view, we can use the ANT way of looking at things in our daily lives. For example, if you are a student at a university, you are involved in a large, interconnected network of influences, some of which tend to change the way the system runs, and some that do not.

Part of ANT diagram for a college student
ANT diagram

If you look at the diagram, you realize that some of the elements (like the power system and the roads) may not have much effect on your success at a college. They don't change much. Although they are just as important as the other factors you may encounter at college, they would be considered intermediaries, or for your purposes. You have no actions you want to take, no changes to make, in regard to those pieces. Your books may be in the same position. For a given course, your books may be a static thing, with the only thing changing about them being the amount of time you spend studying them. The books themselves are merely intermediaries.

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