ANT Vocablulary – Table



August 1, 2009

VOCABULARY: Inscriptions & Blackboxes


Term Meaning Reference
Black box A black box is created when a group of actors comes together and each one influences the other through actions, translations etc. It is their common interests and goals that become a part of the black box. A blackbox knits together a whole system of alliances, associations (both human and non-human). (Pg. 57).

 Black boxes are devices, practices, or organizations that are opaque to outsiders, often because their contents are regarded as ‘technical’. The goal of opening black boxes is to discover how they are kept opaque; how they structure their ‘contexts’; and how those contexts are inscribed within them.

 As Latour write in “Science in Action”, “facts and machines in the making are always undetermined” (Latour 1987, p. 13), but once they become determined they also become what are referred to as black boxes, or as Latour sometimes also refers to as object-institutions (Latour 1999). This process of ‘black boxing’ is one of the key areas of empirical interest in science and technology studies. 

Black boxes are “sealed actor networks” (Stadler,1997) whose alignment has been obtained, whose aligned interests have been inscribed in a stable association that is no longer questionable-except at a heavy cost.

Lowe (2000) 

  Panourgias (2007)


 Mackenzie (2005)


  Latour (1987, p. 13)

  Latour (1999)


 Stadler, (1997)

Irreversibility and Flexbility “The inherent difficulty in changing an actor-network – —- removing an inscription – can be well captured by Callon’s concept of the (possible) irreversibility of an aligned network. This concept describes how translations between actor-networks are made durable, how they can resist assaults from competing translations. Callon (pg 159) states that the degree of irreversibility depends on (1) the extent to which it is subsequently impossible to go back to a point here that translation was only one among many and (2) the extent to which it shapes and determines subsequent translations. 

Inscriptions are given a concrete content because they represent interests inscribed into a material. The flexibility of inscriptions vary: some structure the pattern of use strongly, others quite weakly. The power of inscriptions whether they must be followed or can be avoided, depends on the irreversibility of the actor-network they are inscribed into. It is never possible to know beforehand, but through studying the sequence of inscriptions we learn more about exactly how and which inscriptions were needed to achieve the aim. (Pg 331)


Example: Let us consider what it takes to establish a specific work routine – In order to do so you could acquire the skills, if the skills cannot be acquired you could inscribe into a textual description of the routine in the form of  a manual. If this also does not work, you could inscribe the work routines by supporting them by an Information system.

Monteiro and Hanseth in Orlikowski’s – Information Technology and changes in Organizational work.
Mobile and Combinable  (Superimposable) “The generation of immutable mobiles is closely linked to the development of chains of reference that are formed by the linking of actants and serve to make the physical world mobile and compatible with human systems of communication, and thus understandable to human. The moments of these immutable mobiles traces the heterogeneous networks they are part of and can be of great value in their studying and observation. Events, places, people, things are made mobile while being kept stable so they can move back and forth without distortion, corruption and decay, and be combinable so that they can be ‘cumulated, aggregated, shuffled, compared and used for calculations’. (Latour 1987, p. 223). A movement from things to signs and back again is thus made possible. 

Mobile and combinable allow distant afraid to be brought to a centre that then is able to act at a distance on remote places.


Being combinable or superimposable allows various immutables to be combined and thus develop new insight about the remote place.

Mouritsen and Johansen (2008) 

Panourgias (2007)

Solid (Immutable) Solid and immutable inscriptions allow the remote place to be held without significant distortion. 

The process of inscription is cumulative; a single work routine may be inscribed into several system components. This superimposition and accumulation adds to the strength of the inscription.


“Incriptions are ‘immutable, combinable mobiles’ because they are translated into a fixed form that is combinable and comparable with other inscriptions, and because they are then able to be carried from their original contexts to other applications.


Paperwork such as formule, graphs and charts are argued to possess 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.

Nonaka, 2005 215    

Latour (1987:227) 







 Chua (1995, 116)                                    

Durability This indicates the strength of the inscriptions as it moves from one actor to another. It is imparted through the successful intertwining of both social and technical elements.(Pg. 216) 

“Durability is thus imparted to the resulting object through obtaining the support of strong allies in the form of new links that tie instruments, figures, and texts both to each other and to the original claim being defended. In the process, movements from the conceptual to the material, from words into things, from the centre to the periphery, from the general to the particular, from the global to the local and then back again, ensue. Facts become statements, statements become facts, both can be incorporated into texts, objects, machines, automations, which can then themselves produce inputs and data that feed back into texts, statements, facts, and controversies”. (Pg. 53) 

Panourgias (2007)

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