TSElosophers meeting 16.4.2019 Ekaterina Panina, Elina Järvinen, Kari Lukka, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl

Reading material:

1. Bruno Latour (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press. Of which pages 141-156, ”On the difficulty of being an ANT: An interlude in the form of a dialog.”
2. Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen (2000) Kuinka monta meitä on. Tiede & Edistys, No.4. See http://elektra.helsinki.fi/se/t/0356-3677/25/4/kuinkamo.pdf

Our discussion:

We noted that the reading materials offer valuable insights both to ANT experts and to those who have only discovered it recently. Our first text involves a Socratic dialogue between a professor and a PhD student (Latour 2005). The student asks many questions as for how to apply ANT, only to receive rather elusive responses such as ANT is only useful when it is not applied to anything. It is a strange but consistent text that may provoke strong feelings as it demonstrates the several notable clashes between ANT and other approaches to research. ANT is unique in many ways. In our second text, Lehtonen (2000) presents ANT’s key concepts and analyzes ANT’s insights regarding collectives based on Latour’s three texts: “Les Microbes: guerre et paix”; “Aramis ou l’amour des techniques”; and “Paris ville invisible”.

The discussion of TSElosophers concentrated mostly on ANT’s key concepts, because ANT seems to be extremely difficult to pin down. This is not only due to Latour’s cryptic writing style, but also as his ANT seems to be also a somewhat ‘moving target’: Latour’s own views on ANT seem to have developed over time, too. Latour has even criticized the name he gave to it: ‘actor’ is a too strong expression, ‘network’ is often misunderstood and ANT is actually an ontology (e.g. Latour 2005, 9). Actor-network theory defines actors as things which have an effect. A network in ANT is not a safely stable network formed by ostensively defined actors, but very dynamically appearing and disappearing network of performatively defined actors having effects. One in our group with experience on Deleuze and Guattari noted a similarity between the idea of network in ANT and rhizomes, both differing from the more traditional ideas of networks. Also, renaming ANT as an ontology fits with its anti-essentialist, a-theoretical approach.

Anti-essentialist approach provides a strong contrast to traditional sociology. The anti-essentialism of ANT denies that any properties of objects are results of their essence. Rather, in ANT, all properties are viewed as relational outcomes of the actor-network. A stability of a network can emerge and Latour calls these ‘black boxes’, but these black boxes are contingent on the ‘network’ of the actors. Black box, e.g. the election results, can become a new actor that affects the creation of other actors, such as a new government. If, however, an election fraud was uncovered, the election results could become questionable, suddenly destabilizing the network so that it would no longer be a black box. This would make, for instance, the forming of a new government difficult. Latour’s interest lies in the detailed descriptions as for how black boxes are formed and kept up, whereas traditional sociology usually just analyzes these black boxes, e.g. theorizing on democracy. Latour emphasizes that in his approach the researcher doesn’t have to pretend – actually he is not allowed to pretend – to be wiser than the studied actors; he encourages the employers of ANT be happy with just building empirical descriptions and possibly giving these back to the explored actors for reflection.

We were puzzled by the ANT’s seemingly strong commitment to an a-theoretical approach and its possible implications. If Latour was taken completely to his letter, ANT cannot be applied to anything, because it does not provide much theory and it is incompatible with using other theoretical framings. We considered whether it actually is possible (even if one so wished) to employ a categorically a-theoretical approach in research and if so how. We felt that writing a fully and only descriptive research text on actors creating new actors remains a very problematic endeavor: For instance, how to find proper mentoring support and how to present the findings so that they could be found persuasive and interesting for practitioners and funders, leading to publications? We were left wondering why exactly could theory that the researcher would like to employ be not used in an ANT-based research, being hence understood like any actor in ANT (an entity having effects) and treated like theories are typically treated: Having a focusing and a limiting effect simultaneously.

We concluded that ANT was a worthy actor in our meeting. There were many suggestions as for how to continue looking into ANT in particular and the anti-essentialist tradition in general. One of us suggested taking a good look at Harman’s (2009) “Prince of Networks”, which provides a most insightful analysis of the ontology of ANT. Others aim to look into anti-essentialism (e.g. Fuchs 2001), develop their understanding on the differences between ANT and Deleuze & Guattari, or read Latour’s “Science in action” (1987) and “Reassembling the Social” (2005) entirely. Regarding the a-theoretical nature of ANT, the piece by Modell, Vinnari and Lukka (2017), published in “Accounting, Organizations and Society”, could be useful reading.