Chell's blog

Thoughts, ideas, and other things 'a bit unkempt'…

On actor-network theory, Bruno Latour


Latour discusses some of the misconceptions about networks. He says there are three main misunderstandings that are due to “common usages of the work network itself and the connotations they imply”.

The first mistake is to relate a network to a ‘technology network’ such as a train, subway, sewage or telephone network, “a technical network in the engineer’s sense is only one of the possible final and stabilised states of an actor network”. This is much different to the ‘actor network’, because an actor does not have the same characteristics such as compulsory paths or strategically positioned nodes.

The second mistake he describes is relating the ‘actor network theory’ (ANT) to the study of social networks. The study of social networks involves studying human actors and their frequency, distribution, homogeneity and proximity. The ANT aims at “describing the very nature of society”, but not just in terms of humans, but also non-human, non-individual entities. ANT builds, or “rebuilds” social theory OUT OF networks.

ANT asks us “to think in terms of nodes that have as many dimensions as they have connections”.

“ANT makes use of the simplest properties of nets and then add to it an actor that does some work; the addition of such an ontological ingredient deeply modifies it”.

Latour then goes on to describe some of the characteristics common of all networks:

– Proximity is not an issue; “elements which are close when disconnected may be infinitely remote if their connections are analysed”, and vice versa. Take the example of the technological possibilities that the telephone has created; you can be standing one meter away from your friend while you are on the phone, but be closer to another friend on the other side of the world by talking to them through the phone instantly.

– The size of the scale is replaced by connections. A network is never bigger or smaller than another one, it is just closer or looser in ints connections. IT does not care what is the top/ bottom of society, what is micro or macro or local or global.

Latour also describes that the word ‘actor’ carries many misconceptions as well. In terms of ANT, an actor or ‘actant’, “can be literally anything provided it is granted to be the source of an action”.

I found this half of the reading really useful and helpful to my better understanding of networks and found that I too made some of the common mistakes when thinking ‘what is a network?’

The reading then moves on to semiotics and reflexivity and I found it a lot less readable. So, purely so I don’t try and explain what Latour is explaining wrong, I’m going to stop my reflection here. 🙂


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