Actor-Network Theory (ANT)

It’s the one thing every U.S. taxpayer dreads: to receive an audit notice from the Internal Revenue Service. Because auditing is typically a stressful process, people who receive such a notice often exude a sour disposition for weeks afterward. Whenever someone asks them what is wrong, they respond grouchily, “I’m being audited by the IRS.”

But who or what is the IRS? Is the IRS the computer that identified the tax accounting error and requested the audit? Is it the organization’s director? Is it the person that mailed the audit notice? Or is it the laws that established the IRS and describe proper tax accounting methods?

According to a concept called Actor-Network Theory (ANT), it’s all of the above. Scientists proposed ANT to explain how people, objects and ideas (i.e., actors) work together to form structured entities, or networks. Actors create networks by adapting resources, taking on defined roles, forming interdependent relationships and repeating predetermined behaviors to solve problems or accomplish goals. For example, the IRS exists because every year its agents receive millions of tax forms, feed them into computers for analysis, check for errors in the paperwork and then respond to taxpayers by mailing tax refunds, collection bills, or audit notices. If the agents and computers suddenly failed to engage in these actions, or if the laws upholding the actions were repealed, the IRS would cease to function as a viable organization.

Scholars in the field of science and technology proposed Actor-Network Theory in the 1980s to debunk claims that heroism or advanced innovation was responsible for the development of useful inventions. Instead, scientists stated that the process of scientific invention could be explained more accurately and rationally by taking into account all of the factors involved: the knowledge of the inventor, the tools or technology used, history, societal pressures, the influence of institutions or other networks, and the ideas that inspired the invention. With ANT, scientists wanted to show that scientific production does not result from a higher form of thought, but is naturally translated from the complex interactions between actors and networks.

For the purposes of Actor-Network Theory, anything can be an actor within a network: a law, a text, a person, an idea, an inanimate object and even another network. Even more interestingly, however, is that each of these elements receives equal consideration in ANT. For example, the IRS agent who enters data into a computer may be more complex or contribute more to the organization than the computer, but both the computer and the agent function as actors within the IRS and derive their role and purpose from that network. Since agents and computers (theoretically) came together to form the IRS, the organization cannot (theoretically) operate or exist without them both, implying a basic equality shared among actors.

To form a network, human actors first identify a problem that the network will attempt to solve. This is known as problematisation. During problematisation, leaders are selected to represent actors and establish roles within the network. Next, actors negotiate the terms of their assigned roles, a process called interessement. Enrollment occurs when actors accept their roles. Finally, actors mobilize their allies and resources to support the network.

ANT, unlike other sociological theories, functions on the principle that scholars should view all actors within the same theoretical framework regardless of their status, and that all assumptions concerning the nature of networks or actors should be abandoned prior to study. In other words, ANT demands total impartiality when describing actors and networks. The terminology used must be consistently applied to every actor, and conclusions drawn must be based on what is actually observed, not on the scholar’s presuppositions. Even an actor’s non-network purpose or behavior is excluded from the methodology. This allows networks to be described accurately, in concrete terms, taking into account all of their various elements.

Because of its strong sociological implications, Actor-Network Theory has been used in sociology to examine how humans organize through interaction. ANT does not attempt to explain why networks are formed, but how. It is primarily concerned with how networks grow stronger and stabilize; attract, enroll and motivate actors; organize actors and resources; and maintain actor loyalty. For this reason, ANT is a useful tool for observing and evaluating human behavior, resource adaptation and object utility. Consequently, the theory has been applied to economics, business, geography and health studies, among other fields.

Of course, no theory is without its critics. Some scholars say that evaluating both human and non-human actors through the same theoretical lens is ridiculous because humans, unlike objects, possess intent, and intentionality can influence networks. Others have accused ANT of being amoral and overly managerial. Because ANT only describes networks and does not explain why they are created, some critics claim the theory is useless to sociologists. Nevertheless, its consideration of the agency of non-human actors, while controversial, remains relevant to fully understanding network processes and interactions.

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