Actor Network Theory and ‘Tracing’


 August 18,2009

 Actor Network Theory and ‘Tracing’

 Mouritsen (2008,2) “An inscription emerges at the end of a procedure which organizes traces. For example, an accounting number is the end of a procedure for organizing receipts. The process collects disparate and distributed traces, and it summarises and transports them to a centre from which they make action at a distance possible. This production process and the resources necessary to make the inscription solid has been analysed in the literature, but the reverse process of making the inscription an input to intervention at remote places thus analyzing its role in acting at a distance is neglected in the literature.”

  “Actor-network theory, or the ‘sociology of translations’ (Callon 1986b;Law 1992), is concerned with studying the mechanics of power as this occurs through the construction and maintenance of networks made up of both human and non-human actors. It is concerned with tracing the transformation of these heterogenous networks (Law 1991) that are made up of the people, organizations, agents, machines and many other objects. It explores the ways that the networks of relations are composed, how they emerge and come into being, how they are constructed and maintained, how they compete with other networks, and how they are made more durable over time. It examines how actors enlist other actors into their world and how they bestow qualities, desires, visions, and motivations on these actors (Latour 1996). Law and Callon (1988, 285) put it this way – ‘Our object, then, is to trace the interconnections built up by technologies as they propose projects and then seek the resources required to bring these projects to fruition.” (Tatnall and Gilding 1999, 959).

 Lower (2006, 30) “ANT extends the general case study approach with the concept of tracing the dynamics of heterogeneous networks consisting of human and non-human actors.”

 “Tracing the movements of actants, their transformations, and the things they fetch, recruit, seduce, convince and bring to the setting during controversies, has to be at the centre of empirical investigations of scientific and technological facts and artifacts (Latour 1987, 15)” (Panourgias 2007, 54)

 “Tracing the emergence of these networks of relations and describing, understanding, and explaining the ordering of relations between human and non-human entities has to be at the centre of any enquiry into how devices, agents, institutions, or organizations are generated (Law 1992), and this can be extended to heterogeneous objects such as financial marketplaces.” (Panourgias 2007, 69).

 Summary of what we talked about:


 Several researchers (Akrich 2000, Mouritsen and Larsen 2005, Nonaka 2005, Latour 2005, Law 1992) present actor-network theory as a constellation of actors and their environment. They describe actor-network theory (ANT) as a theory where actors continuously evolve and take shape (translation) depending on their relations with one another and with the environment.  An actor-network is a “provisional assembly of productive, heterogenous and quite limited forms of ordering located in no larger overall order”. (Law, 2007, p. 6)

 In contrast to systems thinking, ANT is more dynamic because the actors, networks, nodes etc. are not fixed and are constantly evolving. This constant change and evolution provides an opportunity for us as researchers to study the process of ‘tracing’, which involves following the path taken by actors and networks as they interact with each other. The heart of ANT is about relationships. When using the patterns of thinking tool, there is no structure or order in which DSRP are identified. There is no one right starting point however the starting point of ANT is invariably relationships. We view actors in a network and networks as a congregation of actors. Both these components are highly interlinked and cannot be separated from each other.

 Law (1986) discusses how the Portuguese generated a network that allowed them to control half the world. His response was that an interplay of many actors, ships, sails, navigators etc. all formed a web of relationships. “That web, precarious though it was, gave each component a particular shape or form that was to hold together …’ (Law 2007,7). This shows that the strength of actors in a network leads to a successful endeavor.

 For example: If Connector Rx was a well established resource, it would not provide much room for a researcher to dissect the moving parts and study them because the parts are well established, “immutable mobiles” as this stage. However in the case of a new project, even this paper for instance, we can see the paper evolve as it continues to interact with other elements in the network. This mobility an fluidity provides an opportunity where we can trace the movement of objects over a period of time until they solidify and become a ‘black box’. Once a ‘black box’ is created, although it has achieved a significant level of stability, it continues to interact with other elements in other networks and continues to evolve.


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