“Actor-Network Theory in Education”

flickr photo by ianguest http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/20938807681 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

When you read in the preface of a book:

ANT-related approaches are well suited for tracing and naming complex politics, hybridities and métissage, non-coherences, absences and problematic representations or presence, dynamics of assembling and disassembling powerful interlinked entities, embodiment, and materializing processes that are so often unmentioned in educational accounts.

you know you didn’t pull it from the shelf for a little light bedtime reading. A quick scan of the ANT literature reveals this book is one of the touchstones to which anyone researching education with an ANT lens refers. After introducing what ANT is (and is not), teaching, learning, curriculum, standards, technology, change, policy and accountability within education are all explored. So a highly informative, though far from lightweight read … but then, little I’ve read about ANT has been easy. For me, getting to grips with ANT is much like grasping a soapy eel with hands coated in olive oil. The extent to which ANT literature is accessible is not helped by the language, terminology and the time spent discussing in the abstract. The final chapter of the book offers something a little more concrete however, setting out to provide some clues for those who need to know how to ‘do ANT in educational research.’ Though it draws on real studies, what’s understandably missing (but what I need) is the minutiae of what ANT researchers actually do when they ‘follow the actors.’ Where exactly do they go?! But then again, I wouldn’t expect that level of detail in a book of this nature and I need to look elsewhere; journal articles, blog posts, case studies from actual practitioners might be fruitful avenues to explore. Connecting with ANT survivors perhaps? Or thrivers!

The authors are reticent about attempts to ‘tame’ ANT and bring order to something that is inherently and by its very nature messy. And as they mention right at the outset (p2):

ANT cannot be described as a single, stable or identifiable framework.

which hints once more at its inherent slipperiness, perhaps even making it an easy target for critics? For a fleeting moment then I’m left wondering why I chose ANT. I remind myself that given the environment I elected to explore, a traditional approach would simply be covering old ground. ANT offers a new way to frame professional learning, focusing keenly on the materiality and viewing knowledge as situated, embodied and distributed. Professional learning, as with so many areas in education is complex; ANT offers the opportunity to shed new light on that complexity.

What did I learn?

  • More about the chronology of ANT and how it has morphed and adapted and will continue to do so as it addresses new challenges.
  • The language of ANT and key terms like actor/actant, translation, assemblage, black-box, symmetry, mobilisation, mediators, intermediaries, immutable mobiles, enrollment, punctualization, obligatory points of passage, multiplicity, ambivalence. (In a future post, when I’ve had the chance to read further, I need to bring my interpretation of what each of these terms means for me in the context of my own study).
  • I’m heartened to learn that many researchers using ANT to explore educational issues, often combine it with other methodological approaches (p165). I wonder how though (or if?) it will sit alongside other theoretical frameworks like complexity theory for example, and social network analysis which conceptualises networks somewhat differently from ANT.

I’m minded to concur with the authors as they draw the book to a close suggesting it might prove an obligatory point of passage (p165) for readers. Me? Maybe.

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