To do is to be?

flickr photo by benwerd https://flickr.com/photos/benwerd/224640792 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Next Saturday is the 2016 Sheffield Institute of Education Doctoral Conference; I’m both co-organiser and  presenting a seminar. With my pilot study completed, and following a successful Confirmation of PhD seminar, I had a lot of potential topics from which to choose. In a weaker moment, I thought I’d talk about my preliminary findings, as revealed by the sociomaterial sensibility that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is enabling me to bring. The tricky part is that I’ve been wrestling with conceptual approach all year. I guess that’s why I chose to use it to frame my talk; at some point I have to lay out my understanding to scrutiny so that any weaknesses are exposed and I can begin to do something about them. Unfortunately I only have 30 minutes in which to discuss my findings, AFTER having introduced a perhaps unfamiliar audience to ANT, using my only limited (current) understanding. Here then, with only the space afforded by a brief blog post, I’ll attempt to summarise what I intend to cover.

My continuing search through the literature has revealed that the research conducted into teacher professional learning supported or facilitated by Twitter has so far side-stepped the issue of materiality. This activity (whatever it might be) takes place within an environment mediated by technology, at various levels. A conceptual approach is called for which therefore addresses that and reveals the extent to which the material and social worlds are intertwined. ANT is one approach which might assist.

The progenitor of ANT can be found in Science and Technology Studies (STS) where the process of knowledge generation in scientific disciplines is empirically explored, but more specifically, from a sociological standpoint. If anyone might be considered to have brought forth ANT, Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law might be so credited through their studies of technological innovations. Their need to attend closely to minutiae required an ethnographic approach, and this continues to be the case in more contemporary ANT studies, including mine. ANT has continued to evolve over the years, with those earlier studies now being termed ‘Classic-’ or ‘Early-ANT’ which can be characterised through their attention to relations between heterogenous entities which “take their form and acquire their attributes as a result of their relations with other entities” (Law, 1999). This rather radical notion is that subjects and objects do not pre-exist and only take form as outcomes of associations with other entities – a relational materiality. ANT also, somewhat subversively, requires us to afford equal status to human and nonhuman actors through what it calls the principle of generalised symmetry. If our topic of study was school playground play, in addition to the young people, their interactions, the playground supervisors and teachers on duty, we should also attend to the material actors: the toys and games, the surface(s), the equipment, the boundaries (fences?), the rules (of the games and the school), the weather and shelters. All of these not only contribute to playground play, but are to greater and lesser extents are brought forth by it within their network of associations.

Before proceeding further, it might be prudent to make clear that actor-network theory does not claim to be a theory – as Latour (1999) once wrote, “there are four things that do not work with actor-network theory; the word actor, the word network, the word theory and the hyphen!” Without unpicking that claim fully (the paper is available to download), we can take that what ANT may lack in full explanatory power, it more than makes up for in the descriptive detail it provides when attending to complex and incoherent problems. ANT is then, more of a methodological toolkit, or as Law (2008) puts it:

Actor-network theory is a disparate family of material-semiotic tools, sensibilities, and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social and natural worlds as a continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located.

So with our sociomaterial sensibility, we ‘follow the actors (and action)’; we trace their effects in order to write their stories and detail their strategies, associations, negotiations and accomplishments.

There are a number of key terms or concepts on which ANT accounts draw, including translation, intermediaries and mediators, black boxing, obligatory points of passage, stabilisation, assemblages and immutable mobiles. However, a detailed exploration of the work they do must be for a future post; unpicking them one by one will not be possible during the course of my brief seminar. What is more important in the context of my talk, is the shift in emphasis that unfolded in tandem with that of the new millenium; what came to be known as Post-ANT.

This is the point at which I begin to feel less comfortable as I must address ontology. Coming from a physical science background, with a fairly staunch conviction in absolutes, it’s taken me a while to become more comfortable working with ANT, where a much more open attitude is called for. Broadly speaking, people approach their work with either positivist ontology in which they consider reality as pre-existing and being ‘out there’, or from an interpretivist standpoint, where reality is constructed by the interpretations of those involved. Early on in my studies I made the mistake of describing ANT in this way, describing it as a lens to bring to bear on the topic of interest. My mistake in adopting this perspectival view was gently pointed out and subsequent reading has helped me see the shortcoming in my thinking. This view sees reality as an outcome of my (and other’s) interpretations, whereas instead, ANT shapes reality as an emergent phenomenon, brought into existence by interactions between human and nonhuman actors.

In order for reality to actually materialize, ANT requires that there be interaction amongst actants and it is only from this interaction that reality can emerge.

(Cordella and Shaikh, 2006)

If that is the case, then different assemblages, different interactions will result in different realities. By considering reality as done, enacted or performed, Mol (1999, 2002, and De Laet & Mol, 2000) proposed that different multiple objects are brought into being, whether they be bush pumps, anaemia or atherosclerosis). This took some while for me to come to terms with, especially as entangled within this ontology was the possibility that the different methods I might bring to bear as a researcher would also enact different realities. I’m aware therefore that I’m an actor here and that what I do will help to construct particular realities; what I need to keep in mind though is that I’m not the only one who should have a voice and that I need to find ways of allowing all actors to speak for themselves. This part is the challenge I’m currently wrestling with; how to enable the nonhumans to have a voice in a world swamped with textual exchanges and thereby dominated by the humans.

If you’ve kept reading to here, let me first of all congratulate you, but also ask that if you are an ANT ninja and can spot flaws in my retelling, please let me know. Now all I have to do before my seminar is find a way of summarising the above without losing its meaning, and also include a couple of illustrative examples to assist my audience. Phew!

Cordella, A. and Shaikh, M. (2006). From epistemology to ontology: Challenging the constructed “truth” of ANT (Doctoral dissertation, London School of Economics).
De Laet, M., & Mol, A. (2000). The Zimbabwe bush pump mechanics of a fluid technology. Social studies of science, 30(2), 225-263.
Latour, B. (1999). On recalling ANT. The Sociological Review, 47(S1), 15-25.
Law, J. (1999). After ANT: complexity, naming and topology. The Sociological Review, 47(S1), 1-14.
Law, J. (2009). Actor network theory and material semiotics. The new Blackwell companion to social theory, 3, 141-158.
Mol, A. (1999). Ontological politics. A word and some questions. The Sociological Review, 47(S1), 74-89.
Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Duke University Press.

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