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Actor-network theory originated in the 1980s as a movement within the sociology of science, centered at the Paris School of Mines. Key developers were Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, Antoine Hennion, and John Law. It was sharply critical of earlier historical and sociological analyses of science, which had drawn a clear divide between the ”inside” of a science (to be analyzed in terms of its adherence or not to a unitary scientific method) and its ”outside” (the field of its application).
Actor-network theorists made three key moves. First, they argued for a semiotic network reading of scientific practice. Human and non-human actors (actants) were assumed to be subject to the same analytic categories, just as a ring or a prince could hold the same structural position in a fairy tale. They could be enrolled in a network or not, could hold or not hold certain moral positions, and so forth. This profound ontological position has been the least understood but the most generative aspect of the theory. Second, they argued that in producing their theories, scientists weave together human and non-human actors into relatively stable network nodes, or ”black boxes.” Thus a given astronomer can tie together her telescope, some distant stars, and a funding agency into an impregnable fortress, and to challenge her results you would need to find your own telescope, stars, and funding sources. Practically, this entailed an agnostic position on the ”truth” of science. Indeed, they argued for a principle of symmetry according to which the same set of explanatory factors should be used to account for failed and successful scientific theories. There is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. Third, they maintained that in the process of constructing these relatively stable network configurations, scientists produced contingent nature – society divides. Nature and society were not pre-given entities that could be used to explain anything else; they were the outcomes of the work of doing technoscience. Latour called this the ”Janus face” of science. As it was being produced it was seen as contingent; once produced it was seen as always and already true.
Together, these three moves made the central analytical unit the work of the intermediary. There is no society out there to which scientists respond as they build their theories, nor is there a nature which constrains them to a single telling of their stories. Rather, the technoscientist stands between nature and society, politics and technology. She can act as a spokesperson for her array of actants (things in the world, people in her lab), and if successful can black-box these to create the effect of truth.
The theory has given rise to a number of concepts which have proven useful in a wide range of technoscientific analyses. It has remained highly influential as a methodological tool for analyzing truth-making in all its forms. The call to ”follow the actors” – to see what they do rather than report on what they say they do – has been liberating for those engaged in studying scientists, who frequently hold their own truth and practice as if above the social and political fray. Their attention to the work of representation on paper led to the ideas of ”immutable mobiles” and ”centers of calculation,” which trace the power of technoscience to its ability to function as a centralizing networked bureaucracy. Indeed, the anthropological eye of actor-networked theorists – looking at work practices and not buying into actors’ categories – has led to a rich meeting between the sociology of work, the Chicago School of sociology, and actor-network theory. Latour’s later work on the distribution of political and social values between the technical world and the social institution has opened up a powerful discourse about the political and moral force of technology.
The actor-network theory itself has changed significantly in recent years, including Latour’s (1999) tongue-in-cheek denial of each of its central terms and the hyphen connecting them. This has been in response to a number of critiques that the theory privileged the powerful, Machiavellian technoscientist as world-builder, without giving much opportunity for representing the invisible technicians within the networks and alternative voices from without (Star 1995).
- Latour, B. (1987) Science in Action:How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Open University Press, Milton Keynes.
- Latour, B. (1999) On recalling ANT. In: Law, J. & Hassard, J. (eds.), Actor Network Theory and After. Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 15-25.
- Star, S. L. (ed.) (1995) Ecologies of Knowledge: Work and Politics in Science and Technology. SUNY Press, New York.