ANT and Inscriptions


According to Chua (1995), Inscriptions further enable the exercise of comparative, normalizing judgement. This in turn permits action from a distance, enabling people far away from the scene of activity to ostensibly have a window on those activities and intervene in the name of better management.

 “An inscription is the result of the translation of one’s interest into material form (Callon 1991, 143). In general, any component of the heterogeneous network of skills, practices, artifacts, institutional arrangements, texts and contracts establishing a social order may be the material for inscriptions..” (Monteiro and Hanseth 1996, 330). There are four interesting aspects of the notion of inscriptions:

1)      what is inscribed : which anticipations of use are envisioned

2)      who inscribes them

3)      how are they inscribed: what is the material for the inscriptions

4)      how powerful are the inscriptions: how much effort does it take to oppose an inscription.

 Scientific knowledge is embedded in procedures of inscription (Latour 1987, Latour 1991), that is the rendering of what is contested and not-yet-fixed immutable or possible to circulate in the form of mathematical formulae or visual representations; such inscriptions are the outcome of the effective alignment of organization and technology.

 The process of Inscription:

The process of inscription seems to be cumulative and there could be several layers of inscription in one system. This process of superimposition bolsters the strength of the inscription. In ANT , “entities acquire attributes and take their form as a result of their interaction with interaction with other entities.” (Nonaka 2005, 215). These actor networks are formed by negotiation and enrollment of participants. “The notion of inscription refers to the way technical artefacts embody patterns of use: ‘Technical objects thus simultaneously embody and measure a set of relations between heterogeneous elements’ (Akrich 1992, p. 205).”

 Latour uses a very general conception of technology which encompasses anything emerging from what he terms the process of “translation”. In this context Latour uses the terms to refer to the production or “fabrication”, of “quasi-objects”. Although these are mostly physical objects, Latour also includes inscriptions, machines and technology.

Evolution of Inscriptions:

 Mouritsen et al. (2008) define an inscription as follows: “the inscription is found at the end of a process of sorting out traces and connecting them in an expression.” (Mouritsen et al. 2008, 3). “Inscriptions are strong (immutable), mobile and combinable (superimposable) which allows distant affairs to be brought to a centre that then is able to act at a distance on remote places.” For example: traces such as accounting receipts can be summarized into accounting numbers; the strength of the inscription is a key element and its strength depends on the transformations of multiple traces to one inscription. Borrowing from actor network theory, it is also true that inscriptions grow as the network of actors grows. For example, an accounting system can be referred to as an actant within a network of human actors, 

 Robson (1992, 691-692) describes an inscription as “a material translation of any setting that is to be acted upon. Inscriptions have to travel between the context of action and the actor remote from that context”.

 Lowe (2000)’s work emphasizes the importance of human relationship with objects in the explication of accounting practice. (Lowe 2000) emphasizes on human relations because “it can be argued that the expansion of object-centered environments which situate and stabilize selves, define individual identity just as much as communities or families do” (Lowe 2000, 5). 

 Diverse forms of Inscriptions:

“The use of diverse forms of inscription is significant… because in certain settings/contexts written communications –– chapters and diagrams as well as documents –– are attributed greater weight and permanency compared to oral modes of communication.” (Ezzamel et al. 2004, 808). In our own experience, we used patterns of thinking TM tool and dis-embedded it in advance organizers, big idea maps to impart DSRP concepts to our students. “The work of Latour and Callon draws attention to the persuasive power of non-human resources such as visual inscriptions, academic texts and ‘centres of calculation’ (Latour 1988a). Paperwork such as formulae, graphs and charts are argued to posess many rhetorical advantages: they are mobile, immutable, recombinable and are perceived to be built on many facts. Most important of all, inscriptions make black boxes visible.” (Chua 1995, 6)

 Need for Inscriptions in the attention economy:

 “Inscriptions further enable the exercise of comparative, normalizing judgement. This in turn permits action from a distance, enabling people far awar from the scene of activity to ostensibly have a window on those activities and intervene in the name of better management.” (Chua 1995, 6).

 In words of Brown (2000), “with the web, we suddenly have a medium that honors multiple forms of intelligence – abstract, textual, visual, musical, social,and kinesthetic. As educators, we now have a chance to construct a medium that enables all young people to become engaged in their ideal way of learning.”

 Brown (2000) also states that today’s generation is a more action oriented group of people. Today, “learning becomes situated in action; it becomes as much social as cognitive, it is concrete rather than abstract, and it becomes intertwined with judgment and exploration” (Brown 2000, 4).

 Mason (2002) elaborates further on ideas and thoughts that clamor for our attention everyday. He says that what is in the periphery at one moment may be at the center of our attention in the next moment. He refers to John Seely Brown’s description of how people deal with the available data in one context. Seely Brown says that when a cyclist begins a race, she/he wears a helmet, kicks the back stand and roards into the road. As her speed increases, she focusses on the road, any changes in the condition of the road prompts her to make changes in her steering. At the same time, she is surrounded by other sensory experiences, weather, smell etc. that seem to hover on the periphery of her mind. This process of sensing but not attending is what Brown refers to as “attuning”. For example, while the rider’s attention i riveted on the road she is also attuned to the movemet of a small rubber ball rolling out between tw cards. She shifts her center of attention to the ball and recalls that sometimes a small child, upon losing the ball, may follow it into the street. The motocyclist slams on the brakes or adjusts bike path to avoide the possibility of hitting a child  without having actually seen the child.

 Mason (2002) also states that placing things in the periphery overcomes information overload. An organization is able to attune to many more things that it could it everything was in the center. In the same way, if inscriptions were transparent, less rigid and prone to easy manipulations; actors in a network would be fumbled by the pethora of permutations and combinations of the same inscriptions. By ‘black boxing’ these inscriptions, we are able to focus our attention away from the tool and instead focus on the task.

When are inscriptions successful?

 The success of inscriptions is embedding in the performance of its actors in the execution of the script. The job of the researcher is to de-scrpit the various inscriptions and programmes of action embodied in particular sociotechnical arrangements. Akrich takes an approach that sees machines and devices as “composite, heterogeneous, part of a long chain of people, products, tools, machines..”, and finds unclear boundaries between these. (Akrich,1992).

 Panourgias (2007) also states that if there is a break in the links or if a new heterogeneous object is being introduced into the network, there will be new delegations, changes to the existing chains of reference, transaction flows and inscriptions. It is central to research to view these changes though time, material and space and also what sort of reconfiguration is associated with this change. He gives an excellent example of the involvement of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT’s) in the financial market place. There are innumerable inscriptions and complex chains of references that allow for voluminous trading to take place in a highly complicated system that exists today. It involves a large set of heterogeneous actors that seem to hold this chain together. “It is by following the processes of coding the transformation of relations between actants involved in the re-configuration of the existing securities marketplaces in to the ICT platform being developed in order to make possible transactions across jurisdictions, that the tracing of the transformation of these chains of reference and mobilization so that they hold across jurisdictions can be undertaken” (Panourgias 2007, 74).


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