Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor‐Network‐Theory

Gabrielle Durepos (Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Nova Scotia)

Equal Opportunities International

ISSN: 0261-0159

Article publication date: 28 March 2008



Durepos, G. (2008), "Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor‐Network‐Theory", Equal Opportunities International, Vol. 27 No. 3, pp. 307-309.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The task set out by Bruno Latour in his book: Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor‐Network‐Theory has been long awaited by the many who have taken an interest in actor‐network‐theory (henceforth ANT). Attracting much attention due to its radical treatment of questions of agency, its extreme focus on how the social is connected and its outright rejection of dualist modes of thought, ANT has often been described as the monster which has escaped its creators hands, taking an essence of its own. Initially rooted in science and technology studies and the sociology of scientific knowledge studies, this theory has been taken up by law, organization studies, history, economics, geography, biology, psychology and medical studies. Through its dispersion and adoption by other academic disciplines, its analysis of group formation and social assembly has proven extremely useful and valid.

In this brief introduction to ANT, Latour sets out to address the extreme amount of academic attention and use that the theory has received. He makes a keen effort to redress concerns brought up by the various disciplines to which the theory has dispersed. Whilst he acknowledges the lack of systematic analysis to date describing the main tenancies of ANT, he promises that this book will provide a clear and thorough explanation. It is my conviction that he achieves this task.

Latour situates himself as an active actor in the book; giving the manuscript an interesting charm and a light humor that make the difficult arguments presented more palatable. He warns the reader from the beginning of the difficult and slow pace of the journey ahead while providing very clear guideposts throughout to aid the reader along. The book is organized in two broad parts which are well written and insightful. It is my opinion that the invaluable contribution of this book to the overall comprehension of ANT lies in the first part and as such, this will inform the focus of my review. This first part of the book outlines in detail the fundamental philosophical assumptions on which ANT stands. Nowhere else are ANT's philosophical assumptions so clearly explained, not even through the combination of resources found on John Law's ANT website. The second part of the book focuses on ANT in use that addresses what a researcher using ANT should strive for while conducting their analysis.

The first part of the book is dedicated to questioning our current understanding of sociology. Alongside Latour's explanation of our current conception of sociology, he proposes its problems and introduces a theory of the social which he assures us takes nothing for granted. As such, the first section of the book is organized around what Latour suggests has been taken for granted by current popular forms of sociology of the social. He outlines that the current sociology of the social has been limited in analysis due to its pre‐conceived and concrete categories. Instead of imposing some order beforehand, Latour cautions us that the task of the sociologist is not to order the activities of the social but to let actors deploy their own activities and ask about the nature of these activities after the matter. As such Latour explains that to conduct empirical research while remaining faithful to ANT is only possible by disturbing the assumptions embedded in the current sociology of the social.

The first uncertainty which Latour describes refers to groups and group formation. His distaste for sociological analyses that give concrete status to the social is obvious in his message that society is not made of groups but instead of group formation. He gives us the following choice: “either we follow social theorist and begin our travels by setting up at the start which kind of group and level of analysis we will focus on, or we follow the actor's own ways and begin our travels by the traces left behind by their activity of forming and dismantling groups” (p. 29). Latour describes that an understanding of the social that superimposes societal categories is limited and futile. As an alternative, Latour suggests that the sociologist should instead focus on the various controversies that have lead to group formation.

Latour's second source of uncertainty pertains to views of action. He suggests that action should “remain a surprise, a mediation, an event” (p. 45) and that a sociology of associations should focus on the drives of action. Far from a linear account of action, Latour explains that action should not be confused with its latent observable effect that is behavior.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of ANT is taken up as Latour's third source of uncertainty. Through his description of the social as made of a blend of heterogeneous materials, Latour does not reserve agency solely for human actors but instead explains that all materials of the social espouse agency. In keeping with his notion that a sociology of association must begin in an analysis of the social with actor's controversies, Latour defines that “anything that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor” (p. 71). And so the question becomes: has the actor made a difference in the course of affairs? Is there a trace that can show this difference? If answers to both questions are “yes” then the actor, object or human is endowed with agency.

The fourth source of uncertainty deals with matters of fact and matters of concern. Latour cautions us that this may be the trickiest point in the sociology of associations. He questions the wide acceptance of facts as concrete givens and suggests that an analysis of their construction can and should be provided by following the series of associations that have enabled a matter of fact to be taken as such.

In Latour's fifth source of uncertainty which he calls writing down risky accounts, he describes the uncertainty associated with researchers writing up their work. Latour describes a good ANT account as one that “allows the writer to trace a set of relations defined as so many translations” (p. 129), that is one that can trace a network. It is in this section that Latour finally takes up the question of a network but does so thoroughly.

This first part of the book ends with a dialogue between a confused student and a professor engaged in ANT. Through his student's voice, Latour tries to ask all the questions that he assumes are floating in the readers mind. This dialogue is entertaining at times but is also sometimes unnecessarily confusing.

In the second part of this introduction to ANT, Latour deals with the hyphen in actor‐network and suggests that the social be best understood by dealing at once with the actor and the network. In this, he offers a collapse of the long standing micro–macro dualism. He follows through this analysis by suggesting how the global can be localized when sociologists of associations follow the actors through their translations that is their local interactions. Latour then focuses on the nature of these interactions and explains that each interaction is supported and enabled by a list of subsequent associations which permit such interactions. Finally, Latour suggests that a sociology of associations must place at its core a focus on how the social is connected and how these connections are maintained.

The coherency of Latour's introduction to ANT is not entirely compromised by the complexity of the subject matter at hand. Latour provides a thorough analysis of the theory but is at times repetitive, other times long winded and meticulous in his examples. Due to the challenging nature of explaining such a complex theory, his repetition proves to be helpful to the unfamiliar reader. Also helpful to the unfamiliar reader is the list of references in this book. As previously noted, the value of this book lies in its detailed explanation of the fundamental assumptions of ANT. Where most empirical scholarship using ANT makes more obvious the points highlighted in the second part of Latour's text, the first part of this book is often assumed but never explicit. This book makes ANT accessible and therefore a great resource for any student wishing to learn the language and ways of ANT.

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