Geography Actor-Network Theory (ANT)
by
Martin Müller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0118

Introduction

Actor-network theory, commonly abbreviated as ANT, has become a key inspiration for geographers to incorporate materiality into geographical theorizing and practice and conceive of agency as a distributed arrangement. Its popularity in geography is a result of providing both new conceptual resources for the discipline’s preoccupation with all things material: nature, buildings, technologies, objects, and the like. It can be seen as a counterbalance to the cultural turn in the late 1980s (as described in the Oxford Bibliographies aricle, Cultural Geography by Lily Kong), which focused geographers’ attention on meaning and representation. Emerging in the early 1980s from Science and Technology Studies (STS) in Geography, it was sociologists Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and John Law who pioneered ANT. For ANT, all entities, whether they are germs or people, stand on equal ontological footing in the beginning. With this assumption, it breaks with the established academic division of labor whereby social scientists look at people and natural scientists look at nature. In its focus on associations, ANT claims that it is the relations established between these entities that make the difference whether powerful actors emerge in particular situations. Hence, Latour (see Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.) also called ANT a “sociology of associations” (p. 9). ANT puts an emphasis on tracing these associations to understand how hybrid networks of humans and nonhumans come together to make things happen or validate particular knowledge claims. Geographers have appropriated ideas from ANT to rethink space and scale as relational, to understand how material things (instead of being mere passive objects) coproduce socio-material realities, and to unravel how powerful actors, entities or knowledge claims emerge, solidify, transform, and founder. Acknowledgements: A Swiss National Science Foundation Professorship (PP00P1_144699) supported this work.

General Overviews

There exist both introductions to ANT thought in general and interpretations for the specific concerns and interests of the discipline of geography. The themes that overviews cover vary, depending on when they appeared and who wrote them, and reflect the intellectual trajectory of ANT. During the several decades of its existence, ANT has transformed considerably.

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