Working Bibliography & Resources: Actor-Network Theory


Actor Network Theory in Plain English:

Agency without Actors? New approaches to collective action. (2012). Ed. by Passoth, Jan-Hendrik, Peuker, Birgit, and Schillmeier, Michael. New York: Routledge. 217 pp.

Kaptelinin, V., Kuutti, K, & Bannon, L. “Activity Theory: Basic Concepts and Applications.”

Latour, B. (1988). Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer. Social Problems. 35.3: 298-310.

Latour. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP. Print.

Moreira. (2010). Actor-network theory. Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Communication. Ed. Priest, S.H. SAGE Publications. Pp. 6-9.

Potts, L. (2013). Social Media in Disaster Response: How Experience Architects Can Build for Participation. Routledge. Print.

Potts, L. (2009). Using actor network theory to trace and improve multimodal communication design. Technical Communication Quarterly. 18.3: pp. 281-301.

Spinuzzi, C. (2008). Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications. Cambridge UP. Print.

Swarts. (2010). Recycled writing: Assembling actor networks from reusable content. Journal of Business and Technical Communication. 24.2: pp. 127-163.



Notes on Actor Network Theory

Definitions of ANT

“One of the key dimensions of this is the fact that ANT is not—properly speaking—a theory; that is, it does not constitute a set of interlinked, conditional propositions that make predictions about states of the world. Rather, ANT is a malleable set of conceptual tools and methodological strategies that enable researchers to investigate and organize empirical materials and helps us understand the dynamics of actions involving key actors in issues of science and science policy. As such, it provides context for understanding patterns of communication in these areas. ANT’s interest in the interaction between science, technology, and society should make it an attractive resource for science communication students and scholars” (Moreira, 8).

“An actor-network is accordingly a set of relationships between human and nonhuman entities drawn together by a particular activity of concern (ranging from particle physics to car design to neurosurgery to primary education)” (Moreira, 7).


Key Terms & Their Use


“Like the biologists and soil scientists that Latour has studied (see Latour 1999a; Latour & Woolgar, 1979), writers create order through their texts by borrowing the voices of actors and their ‘‘very extensive and expensive set of inscription devices [that] would be extremely costly to overturn’’ (Law, 2004, p. 35 in Swarts, 131).

“Fractional texts behave like actor networks, a heterogeneous assemblage of actors that are both human and nonhuman (Akrich & Latour, 1992; Latour, 1993) as well as both present and manifestly absent (e.g., an actor whose voice may not be directly present in the text but is recognized as related or represented and therefore influential; Law, 2004, pp. 84, 157)” (Swarts, 131-32).

Fractional texts speak in many voices (Bakhtin, 1981/1994) that invoke a network of relationships to reinforce order. Drawing on an earlier example, court-tested language in a rental agreement is connected to actors in a legal system: courts, magistrates, and written decisions. The rental agreement draws its authority from those voices that are indexed though manifestly absent in the rental agreement. The legal authority vested in that recycled language then enlists language concerning the specific terms of the contract, connecting those terms to the longer network of legal actors” (Swarts, 143).

“I am defining work as follows: Any online activity in which active participants—the actors in ANT —are engaged in distributing data about an event. Examples of such traces of movements might include comments posted to blogs and tags added to photos by social software participants. Examples of actors include cell phones, human eyewitnesses, digital images, mainstream media Web sites, social software Web sites, friends or relatives of participants, friend-ofa-friend (FOAF) social software participants, and outlier participants who may not be local to the area but nonetheless are active in locating and sharing information. ANT will enable me to discuss the contributions of multiple actors (i.e., Flickr, community moderators, images) in this case study” (Potts, 285).

“Working in the field of science and technology studies, Latour deliberately (if not entirely seriously) sought to shake up then-current theories in sociology by suggesting that all participants, whether they are human or nonhuman, have equal agency to affect any given situation. Referred to as actors, these participants can be people or technologies” (Potts, 285-86).

“You discriminate between the human and the inhuman. I do not hold this bias but see only actors-some human, some nonhuman, some skilled, some unskilled-that exchange their properties” (Latour, 303).



“Furthermore, these actors can come together to form temporary networks, creating assemblages of relations specific to an individual act or broader event and forming a collective, referred to as an actant, led by a spokesperson (Latour, 1987, p. 84). An actant is a network comprising any actors—cell phones, blogs, people, and so forth—that have the ability to act and do act within the network” (Potts, 285-86).

“It shows in its humble way how three rows of delegated nonhuman actants (hinges, springs, and hydraulic pistons) replace, 90 percent of the time, either an undisciplined bell-boy who is never there when needed or, for the general public, the program instructions that have to do with remembering-to-close-the-door-when-it-is-cold” (Latour, 302).

“If I say that Hamlet stands for doom and gloom, I use less figurative entities; and if I claim that he represents western civilization, I use non-figurative abstractions. Still, they all are equally actants, that is to say entities that do things, either in Shakespeare’s artful plays or in the commentators’ more tedious tomes” (Latour, 303).


Problematization, interessement, enrollment, and mobilization

“Viewed this way, designers and researchers can see an entire landscape of active participants, human or technological, that come together to create, share, and validate information as they push it across these networks (Potts, 2009). The participants in social software are what Latour would refer to as translators (1987), in that they are translating the data into information through an extended process of problematization, interessement, enrollment, and mobilization (see Callon, 1986; Latour, 1987). In doing so, they gain other participants who are also willing to translate more material into information, helping to form a group of active participants. When these users tag a particular photo, they are bound by the prescriptions of the system. These participants then apply their own inscription to these images by attributing a semantic value to the image, thereby turning the photo into an intermediary that can then help in constructing the narrative for the event (Latour, 1987, 1999)” (Potts, 286).


Prescription, translation, transcription, inscription

“First, in common use, translation implies an act of changing words from one language to another while retaining some semblance of their meaning. Thus, the form of the words is a fluid quality of otherwise stable ideas. Second, a less common definition of translation is the transportation of something from one place to another, as in the translation of relics (Morris, 1973). This definition implies movement or localization. Third, another definition of translation comes from actor network theory and ties the first two definitions together” (Swarts, 151-52).

“User input” in programming language is another very telling example of this inscription in the automatism of a living character whose behavior is both free and predetermined” (Latour, 306).

“Now, draw two columns (if I am not allowed to give orders to the reader of Social Problems then take it as a piece of strongly worded advice). In the right column, list the work people would have to do if they had no door; in the left column write down the gentle pushing (or pulling) they have to do in order to fulfill the same tasks. Compare the two columns; the enormous effort on the right is balanced by the little one on the left, and this thanks to hinges. I will define this transformation of a major effort into a minor one by the word translation or delegation; I will say that we have delegated (or translated or displaced or shifted out) to the hinge the work of reversibly solving the hole-wall dilemma” (Latour, 299).

“Like the biologists and soil scientists that Latour has studied (see Latour 1999a; Latour & Woolgar, 1979), writers create order through their texts by borrowing the voices of actors and their ‘‘very extensive and expensive set of inscription devices [that] would be extremely costly to overturn’’ (Law, 2004, p. 35)” (Swarts, 131).



“It is not, however, that the movement is always from softer to harder devices, that is, from an autonomous body of knowledge to force through the intermediary situation of worded injunctions, as the Walla Walla door would suggest” (Latour, 305).

“These participants then apply their own inscription to these images by attributing a semantic value to the image, thereby turning the photo into an intermediary that can then help in constructing the narrative for the event (Latour, 1987, 1999)” (Potts, 286).



What problem is ANT supposed to solve? Put another way, why did scholars feel the need to develop and employ ANT?

ANT seems to attempt to provide a set of tools and strategies that allow for understanding “dynamics of actions” involving actors in organizations, workplaces, institutions, and other contexts. ANT can work to help understand patterns in communication. As such, ANT seems to attempt to understand the complexities of action in the context of work in the information age, where information, texts, technologies, humans, and nonhuman actors work in tandem, and collaboratively, across borders. In TPC scholarship, ANT seeks to understand complex communication phenomenon, such as how actors are involved and influence the transformation of written genres over time, the motives and affects of participating social media following disasters, etc.


How would you describe ANT? We’ve talked about theory as arguments about what should be accounted for (theory in the imperative mood), about the conditional relations between things (cause effect? correlation?), and about what may be possible (theory as hypothesis, theory in the subjunctive mood). Does ANT fit any of these characterizations?

ANT does not seem to provide testable or repeatable results. Instead, ANT is haled to unveil the complexity of engagement among actors (human and nonhuman) in a variety of contexts. Through revealing this complexity, it then inscribes a way of finding order and sense out of chaos. Through this week’s readings, I did not see any authors contesting or arguing for ANT to be revised or changed. Instead, Latuor’s original theories and ideas continue to be built and revised as they are applied to more and more contexts.


What are the affordances and limitations of ANT? In other words, what might the theory reveal for scholars, especially in relation to professional writing? What might the theory hide or ignore?

The theory is especially important for TPC scholars to unveil the complexity of actions within organizations, and especially among globally, distributed work. ANT is directly situated to understand the complexitites of work in information and content management, social media use, and autonomous agents (i.e., bots) that mark the landscape of interaction and engagement online. This theory, in its valuation of both human and nonhuman actors, in turn ignores culture as a driving force for actors to be created, valued, and emergent. Culture, to me, is vital and missing from ANT, which is unfortunate because culture resides in the construction of nonhuman actors as well as human actors, of course. ANT does not seem to be a theory suitable for transformative work, such as social justice, revealing the diversity of human actors in organizations, or empowering individuals in any kind of way. In other words, ANT is focused too much on understanding the interactions between and across actors to truly value the rich identities of actors themselves.


Under what conditions might ANT be useful for your own work? Why might it be useful? Under what conditions might ANT be useless or counterproductive for your own work? Why?

Because I’m invested in questions about the way users engage with technologies to perform knowledge work, I will likely find ANT to be a useful theory in the future. Any study of an engineering firm, technology start-up, or non-profit organization can benefit from the framework and terminology offered by ANT. ANT is also a useful theory for working with and understanding international technical communicators and the tools they use for writing and content management. If attempting to study a company that creates ITCDs in east Africa, this could be a useful theory. However, if studying the way rural farmers in Kenya actually engage with ICTD mobile applications, ANT may be inadequate because it ignores concerns like access, empowerment, gender inequality, and literacy. ANT is not a critical theory, so it’s inadequate to study power, injustice, race, gender, etc. Can we modify ANT so that it has a critical component?


How is ANT like activity theory? How is activity theory different from ANT?

AT: object and what happens to it, you have to identify some key terms, more structured, nodes are prescribed and you fill them in, psychological, organizational (intra), distinction between human and nonhuman

ANT: more about interactions than results, you can pull some actors and the network could remain, more adaptable?, you need to inscribe the nodes in ANT, sociological, systematically-oriented (inter), human and nonhuman have equitable power, deterministic? Appears that technology is driving the behavior, doesn’t seem like it leaves much room for agency.


*Both about analyzing data once you have that data.

*Questions composed by Stuart Blythe, responses by me.