Actor-Network Theory, Feb 8th

Posted: February 7, 2012 by elyssamayer in Feb 8

This piece was initially very difficult to understand, but as the reading went on, the concept of ANT became much clearer. Overall, I found this article highly critical of social scientists, almost to a degree that condemned their deficiencies in ignoring the importance objects and material have in analysis of social structures and human agency. Latour argues, the power of society is not of itself, but rather embedded in the power we assign to it, and by disenfranchising the significance of material interactions, we stifle our understanding of a thorough analysis of society.

Verbs designate the actions of objects or nouns and gives them purpose and agency. The agency of non-humans (objects or material), is entwined in the relationship between the things and the concepts associated with them. ATN is how objects and the signs come together as a whole to create a cohesive understanding of the world. Anything that “modifies a state of affairs by making a difference” is an actor, and thus objects and materials are also actors and not solely humans. The symbols we associate with objects have become so clung to our understanding of the objects and such an integral component of life that these objects participate in active activities. The author uses an example of a stop sign and a cyclist in this understanding, as the stop sign acts upon the cyclist. How we understand the symbols of the object (stop sign) allows it to act upon us, thus giving the object agency.

These directions of influence often recede into the background of our comprehension, and are ignored by many social theorists’ studies. Latour argues that due to the incommensurability of these objects they are perceived as inconsequential to our study, while in fact they hold an important role in attaining a comprehensive understanding. As Latour states, objects and humans do not have an isolated or symmetrical relationship, instead they are intricately weaved together to form the experience we know.

Questions:

  1. Are the deficiencies of social science a justification to our lack of analysis of the importance of material culture?
  2. If this metaphysical study is ‘incommensurable’, then how can it be effectively analyzed?
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Comments
  1. elyssamayer,

    I think your first question brings out a really good point. Latour really draws critical attention to the discipline of social sciences and its failure (so to speak,) of marginalizing objects from analyses of social ties/ relations. I would be very interesting to think of other academic or research disciplines that have enacted a similar process of marginalization. It is also interesting to consider why Latour would isolate the social sciences in the way that he does.

  2. tupakkat says:

    Sana,
    your question about other disciplines is very interesting. Rather than naming another discipline that marginalizes objects though, law comes to my mind as a discipline that gives much consideration to objects. Whole academic debates evolve around the objectness of something, objects are meticulously defined, categorized, and brought into relation to each other. Rights are attached to certain objects.
    Objects and their various possibilities of relating to each other and to humans force legal scholars to abstract and generalize their cases to create rules that pertain to any other comparable object.

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