In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Actor-Network Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Reference Works
  • Early ANT
  • Critiques of Early ANT
  • Post-ANT
  • Methods
  • Publics and Democracy
  • Politics
  • Economics and Markets
  • Design, Planning, and Geography
  • Organization
  • Innovation and Entrepreneurship
  • Media and Communication
  • Information Systems
  • Digital Methods
  • Tourism
  • Education
  • Bodies and Healthcare
  • Nature and Environment

Sociology Actor-Network Theory
by
Andreas Birkbak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0266

Introduction

Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is an approach developed in the field of science and technology studies (STS) to avoid purely social and purely technical explanations for scientific and technological developments. ANT offers the departure point of symmetrical constructivism, where there are no primordially social or technical domains, only socio-technical hybrids. As such, ANT is a crucial instigator of a wider turn away from human-centric perspectives in social research. ANT decenters humans by offering an ontological outlook where all actors, humans included, are constituted through their heterogeneous relations with other entities. According to ANT, agency is not a human privilege, but something that emerges in networks of relations between humans and nonhuman alike, thus the name actor-network theory. ANT emerged in France and the United Kingdom in the early 1980s and its influence on STS in the following decades is hard to overestimate. Early ANT brought forward relational, processual, and constructivist studies of scientific practices and technological development. Since around 1990, ANT has been taken up in a wide range of contexts, as the thematic sections below illustrate. This broadening is sometimes associated with the label post-ANT, which signifies a more explicit engagement with the entanglements of multiple practical ontologies, and ethical and political concerns in ANT research, often in conversation with feminist STS and other post-structuralist approaches in the humanities and social sciences. Today, ANT approaches are at work across many scholarly disciplines and fields, where ANT tends to play the role of a heterodox and sometimes even implicit background rather than an explicit theoretical or methodological school. In response to this, the present annotated bibliography seeks to strike a balance between guiding the reader toward classic ANT texts and including some of the trajectories of research that have followed on from ANT in more or less manifest ways. It is not uncommon to omit the label of ANT even in key ANT texts. For example, a central contributor such as Michel Callon refers to the “sociology of translation” instead of ANT. As this lack of fixed vocabulary illustrates, defining the boundaries of the ANT literature is a never-ending task that only has temporary, partial solutions. The aim of this bibliography is not to claim exhaustiveness, but to provide a solid guide for students and researchers who need starting points, either for engaging with ANT in general, or for encountering work within their specific fields of study that have engaged with ANT.

General Overviews

There is no single authoritative overview of actor-network theory (ANT) and indeed it would go against the grain of the approach to claim a fixed theory or methodology. Nevertheless, many of the central intellectual figures in ANT have provided short overview articles along the way, including Callon 2001, Law 2009, and Mol 2010. The ANT approach is reaching a point of maturity and popularity, where a new wave of introductions is published, two of which are included here: Muniesa 2015 is a concise encyclopedia entry, while Farias, et al. 2020 offers a longer discussion.

  • Callon, Michel. 2001. Actor-network theory. In International encyclopaedia of the social and behavioural sciences. Edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, 62–66. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    This short encyclopedia entry provides a useful introduction to ANT with an emphasis on how ANT can help conceptualize and study collective action. The text covers how ANT understands science as well as technology and argues that ANT is still an open-ended project that has been taken in multiple directions in the last decades.

  • Farias, Ignacio, Anders Blok, and Celia Roberts. 2020. Actor-network theory as a companion: An inquiry into intellectual practices. In The Routledge companion to actor-network theory. Edited by Ignacio Farias, Anders Blok, and Celia Roberts, xx–xxxv. London: Routledge.

    This introduction to a recently published large ANT handbook provides a useful tour and critical discussion of the heterogenous disciplines and intellectual domain where ANT has proven influential in the beginning of the twenty-first century. The introduction also offers the most updated review of ANT history currently available.

  • Latour, Bruno. 1996. On actor-network theory: A few clarifications. Soziale Welt 47.4: 369–381.

    First published in Danish by Philosophia in 1996, then in English in Soziale Welt. In Danish the paper has the extended subtitle: “A few clarifications – plus more than a few complications.” The addition is fitting, since the paper does not provide an overview per se, but an introduction to ANT, which simultaneously problematizes several misunderstandings arising from the inclusion of the word “network.”

  • Law, John. 2009. Actor network theory and material semiotics. In The new Blackwell companion to social theory. Edited by Brian S. Turner, 141–158. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444304992.ch7

    This chapter introduces ANT as a sensibility toward “materially and discursively heterogeneous relations.” Law explicitly argues that ANT is “not a theory,” but a descriptive project that must be grounded in empirical case studies. For this reason, “material semiotics” is recommended as a more open and thus more fitting label. Law distinguishes between early actor-network theory (before 1990) and a range of developments it inspired in recent decades (after 1995).

  • Mol, Annemarie. 2010. Actor-network theory: Sensitive terms and enduring tensions. Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 50.1: 253–269.

    This presentation of ANT emphasizes ANT as a set of sensitivities rather than a theory per se. The text discusses each component of ANT, “actor,” “network,” and “theory,” in turn, with the ambition of holding on to the generative tensions between them. The text then discusses ANT in relation to two special issue themes, “order” and “co-ordination,” concluding that the strength of ANT is its adaptability to specific empirical processes.

  • Muniesa, Fabian. 2015. Actor-network theory. In International encyclopaedia of the social & behavioural sciences. 2d ed. Edited by James D. Wright, 80–84. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    A newer entry by Fabian Muniesa, member of the Centre for the Sociology of Innovation (CSI) at École des Mines de Paris, the cradle of ANT, if there is such a thing (Law 2009). Muniesa’s overview is broader than Callon’s, covering not just “central problems” in ANT, but also its origins in French poststructuralism and its relations to other strands of science and technology studies (STS).

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