Actor Network Theory – Simplified (not as much as i had planned)

March 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

So what exactly is actor network theory? Personally I found that once I understood why ANT was created I gained a better understanding of the theory. My understanding is that ANT was essentially created as a response to technological and social determinism. Technological determinism is a reductionist theory that the technology of a society is what drives it’s culture and values. For example the internet has changed most aspects of modern life but being more specific we can say it changed how we do our banking and pay bills. Social determinism is the theory that society’s needs are what drives technological change – for example during times of colonialism society had the need to communicate quickly over long distances and therefore the radio was created. ANT essentially says forget about determinism, there was neither the chicken nor the egg. With ANT these technologies and social need are both equal in a network or in other words that theory or concepts are equal to material thing.

So with determinism in mind, ANT places all these things into a flat ontology or single plane that gives no indication of a higher or lower influence. This means that the networks are constantly changing and affecting each agent (thing) within the network. This however means that ANT must give agency to all things – both human and nonhuman – in its network. This, to many critics, presents a fatal flaw in the theory; how can a nonhuman object have agency – how can something nonhuman have the capacity to act. However I believe that this has to be taken with a grain of salt and major focus on particular aspects of the constructs of agency. Namely that agency does not imply that ability of choice in acting – that is a purely semiotic agent can act in that it can spark a thought in a human or a technology can act in that it can change how we do a task, even though we are essentially driving the technology – it is the technology still acting.

Although we can delve much deeper into this theory an interesting question to ponder regarding its creation is: Seeing as we created ANT to better understand the relationship between theory and practise or technology and society is that social determinism?

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