Actor Network Theory

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Actor Network Theory was first proposed by sociologist Bruno Latour, Actor Network Theory, or ANT, has proven to be one of the most valiant theories of understanding how these different elements work together to produce techno-cultural phenomena. Actor-Network theory is a way to understand the phenomena as distributed networks with interrelated nodes. It draws from emergence theory, computing, and other disciplines to understand both the nodes of the system and the lines of communication that allow for information flow between different nodes.

Latour situates actors/subjects as actor nodes that function within larger distributed networks of mutual interaction and feedback loops. This means that relations need to be repeatedly “performed” or the network will dissolve. Social relations, in other words, are only ever in process, and must be performed continuously. Social relations, in other words, are only ever in process, and must be performed continuously.[1] Through this approach, Latour avoids the two extremes of a purely materialist system in which humans have no agency, as exemplified in Mintz' "Sweetness and Power",[2]and a radically anthropocentric approach that mitigates any agency of supra-human elements (humans are the only agents).

Questions of subjectivities, agencies, actors, and structures have been of perennial interest in Anthropology. In Cyborg Anthropology the question of what type of cybernetic system constitutes an actor/subject becomes all the more important. Is it the actual technology that acts on humanity (the Internet), the general techno-culture (silicon valley), government sanctions (net-neutrality), specific innovative humans (Steve Jobs), or some type of combination of these elements?

Actor Network Theory is applicable to Cyborg Anthropology because the discipline needs to be able to analyze the fluid exchange between technological actors and human actors, especially since the technologies being studied actively dismantle our ontological pre-suppositions as to what constitutes a "human" or a "technology".

In what they have called a "network theory" [Latour and Callon] have developed a vocabulary that does take the distinction between subjects and objects, the subjective and the objective, into consideration. What they call an "actant", for example, is more than a human actor. Both humans and nonhumans may be actants. An actant may be "enrolled" as "allied" to give strength to a position. When a biologist argues for the existence of a molecule, the data that prove this existence are enrolled actants. An actant may be an automatic door opener (Latour 1988), or it may be scallops in the sea (Callon 1986). In networks of humans, machines, animals, and matter in general, humans are not the only beings with agency, not the only ones to act; matter matters".[3]

Related Reading


  1. Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor–Network Theory. Oxford University Press, 2005.
  2. Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
  3. Lars Risan in as cited in Artificial Life: A Technoscience Leaving Modernity? An Anthropology of Subjects and Objects. Lars Christian Risan. With a foreword by Inman Harvey. TMV-senteret 1997.