I believe I follow the broad strokes of Latour’s (2005) argument in Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory pretty clearly, but I find the detail he provides in places extraneous and, to be honest, a bit pompous and flippant. Latour recognizes this about himself, and suggests it’s intentional: “I have completed what I promised to do at the beginning, namely to be one-sided enough so as to draw all the consequences from a fairly implausible starting point” (p. 262).
In its broadest strokes, Latour introduces actor-network-theory (ANT) as a means of reassembling what the term “social” means in “the social sciences.” The term “social” has come to mean two things that Latour finds incompatible: “first, a movement during a process of assembling; and second, a specific type of ingredient that is supposed to differ from other material” (p. 1). He is especially critical of “the project of providing a ‘social explanation’ of some other state of affairs” (p. 1). He differentiates between sociology of the social and sociology of association, seeking to replace the former with the latter as a means of moving forward in social scientific fieldwork and production. Given the rapid rate of change that technological innovation introduces, trying to place our existing groupings into already existing categories limits the perspective of social scientists in ways that negate the scientific aspects of the discipline. In a way, Latour is seeking to rehabilitate the social scientific discipline as it appears to become less and less relevant in describing and explaining real, lived experiences and groupings.
One of Latour’s critiques of the social sciences, or the sociology of the social, is the willingness to categorize activity using existing descriptions and categories of social ties without adequately investigating its connections. This resonated with me as I consider what’s happening right now in the Ukraine. Existing frameworks and tools simply do not explain the social, political, and economic situation in that region, especially the speed at which change is occurring. The social sciences address stabilized social situations; ANT seeks to address and examine, perhaps even explain, existing social situations in and through their changes. ANT sees stabilized groupings and collectives as the exception, not the norm. Groupings are always seeking to change, to redefine themselves, to envelope or subsume other groupings. The current mixed reactions to Russians entering Crimea represents this ANT principle — groupings that were considered stable are revealed to have been fomenting, preparing, and making way for change, but economists, sociologists, and politicians missed the signs, likely because they sought to find an existing set of frameworks by which to explain what was happening.
— Andrew Hosken (@Hoskea10) March 2, 2014
How might ANT reassemble the social in the situation in the Ukraine? First, by seeking groupings from their traces rather than by placing groups into categories. Latour theorizes five areas of uncertainty that can be followed by their traces to identify actor-networks.
- Only action can identify groupings, so the key is to identify specific activities of group formation. Group formation can be revealed in the following traces: an active spokesperson, a set of opposition groupings, frantic attempts to redefine groups on their part of their spokespersons, and the potential for spokespersons to be scientists of the social. Actions are likely to involve mediators, which affect the activity in unpredicted and unpredictable ways, rather than through intermediaries, which are standardized and predictable.
- Actors consist of a “moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it” (p. 46). Actors (in the theatrical sense) are always engaged with other entities when acting; the same is true in ANT, where the actor is really an actor-network, being made to act by many others objects and entities. Those objects and entities can includes hidden forces and impetuses that should neither be discounted nor highlighted, simply included among other forces. Neither “true” nor “false” agencies exist; there are simply agencies.
- Objects may have agency as actor-networks consist of all entities that swarm toward actors and make the actor act. The social is defined as the “momentary association which is characterized by the way it gathers together into new shapes” (p. 65). Social skills among actors seek to create connections; non-social means are used to extend these connections a little longer.
- Few matters of fact exist among connections; instead, matters of concern highlight connections. The aim of the sociology of associations: “there is no society, no social realm, and no social ties, but there exist translations between mediators that may generate traceable associations” (p. 108).
- Written accounts tracing the sociology of associations are risky and unlikely to successfully account for the myriad associations existing in an actor-network. However, it is the writing of the account that demonstrates ANT; the writing of the account following ANT principles is the practice of ANT.
Using these areas of uncertainty, we might discover that “Ukraine” is a construct of the sociology of science. What we consider “Ukraine” may not exist among tracings of connections; instead, what exists may be actor-networks engaged in unexpected mediated translations with Russian military leaders, the former Soviet fleet in Sevastepol, Crimean separatists, and Eastern Ukrainian loyalists (each of which is a grouping that needs to be reassembled of its connections, too). In short, written accounts that fall back upon existing sociology of the social groups simply cannot account for the rapidly-shifting transformational landscape of 21st century geopolitics, especially related to the former Soviet Union.
There are other aspects of ANT, of course, including the need to “flatten” the social to eliminate external expectations of scale and importance; the need to identify and redistribute the local among its many actual times and spaces; and the need to highlight “connections, vehicles, and attachments” (p. 220) rather than actor-networks in the social. Such moves applied to the situation in the Ukraine might offer insight into the relative insignificance of the individual actor-networks (political and social leaders, for example) compared to the connections of individual actors gaining multiple connections (mass protests, for example); into the vital importance of history in the Crimean peninsula and technological innovation and substantiation in the Soviet-era Black Sea fleet; and into the importance of unseen, untraced connections that are generating lived experience in real time.
As this brief and incomplete application reveals, ANT seeks a complete redefinition of the political, too, towards seeking a common world we can all access and understand. “What ANT has tried to do is make itself sensitive again to the sheer difficulty of assembling collectives made of so many new members once nature and society have simultaneously been put aside” (p. 259). More specifically, “ANT is simply a way of saying that the task of assembling a common world [a social] cannot be contemplated if the other task [describing the social] is not pursued well beyond the narrow limits fixed by the premature closure of the social sphere [by the sociology of the social]” (p. 260). The world in which we live changes and moves too quickly for a social sciences that is “supposed to be ‘behind’ political action” (p. 261) to effectively or meaningfully describe it.
The lived world is far more complex than the substance and categories traditional social sciences can contain; ANT seeks to provide new methods for understanding the actions of assemblages.
Spinuzzi’s (2008) chapter “How are Networks Theorized?” offers an interesting caveat to this application. While ANT offers an ontology that can explain why or how the Ukrainian situation is what it is, its application can offer little in the way of instruction or development. ANT precludes forward-looking praxis; it can be applied to present and past events, but the unpredictable character of its connections and mediators makes predicting network operations nearly impossible. Activity theory, on the other hand, offers a means for development and education. ANT deemphasizes “development, learning, and cognition” (p. 93). As a practical matter, this means that activity theory offers an epistemology to be applied as praxis, and the theory can be more instructionally operationalized.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies
Spinuzzi, C. (2008). How are networks theorized? [Chapter]. In Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 62-94.