November 24, 2016, by Jake Hodder

Reading Group: Actor-Network Theory and the Agency of the Document

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour

Guest post by Martin Mahony

  • Latour, B. (1999). On recalling ANT. The Sociological Review, 47(S1), 15-25.
  • Weisser, F. (2014). Practices, politics, performativities: Documents in the international negotiations on climate change. Political Geography, 40, 46-55.
  • Blok, A. (2010). Topologies of climate change: actor-network theory, relational-scalar analytics, and carbon-market overflows. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28(5), 896-912.

Although not a member of the project team, I’ve been going along to a lot of the reading group sessions as there are a number of interesting intersections with my own work on scientific imperialism and internationalism in the early 20th century. Not least among these is an interest in conferences as sites of political performance, and in their role in building communities of practice.

So it was with great interest that I went along to a session on actor-network theory (ANT), which aimed to explore the pertinence of ANT, as a set of ontological and methodological orientations, to understanding the social and political work performed by conferences. ANT emerged as a coherent intellectual programme in the 1980s primarily through the work of Michel Callon, Bruno Latour and John Law. Following the rise of laboratory ethnography in the emerging field of science & technology studies (STS), ANT came to prominence as a way of making sense of how science exercises power and influence in the world beyond laboratory walls. It is a theory of circulation, of the enrolment of human and, crucially, non-human actors into networks of association through which scientific knowledge – in the form of circulating ‘immutable mobiles’ like graphs and maps – is produced and travels, fundamentally altering the composition of world as it does so. ANT is very much a way of thinking spatially about science, technology and society, and as such has been very influential in human geography. And more recently, ANT’s insistence on the agency of the non-human has inspired new a raft of new works on more-than-human geographies in a range of empirical settings.

The conference would appear to be a site ripe for ANT-inspired analysis. It is a coming-together of people, as well as of documents, tools, images and practices, and is a place of ordering these multiplicities, of seeking to align them to some common purpose. It therefore functions in some ways much like the famous ‘centres of calculation’ described by ANT analyses of scientific networks, where the immutable mobiles, which turn empirical discoveries into tools of social persuasion, are gathered to be processed, ordered, and re-circulated. So we collectively found it curious that no-one seems to have explicitly used the ANT lens to analyse conferences (please correct us if we are wrong!), and the intention of the reading group was to think through what such an analysis might look like.

We looked at three diverse readings. The first, Latour’s ‘On recalling ANT’ from 1999, is a well-cited reflective piece on the trajectory of ANT since the idea’s inception. It deals with some of the criticisms levelled at ANT and proposes some clarifications of the original thinking and of ways forward. The paper was published at a moment of important reflection among the ANT and STS communities – the latter in response to the ‘science wars’, and the former in response also to some emerging critiques from within STS, and beyond. A number of these critiques of ANT concerned its ability to deal adequately with questions of power and difference in the expansion of scientific and technological networks. For many, the figure of the ‘networking’ scientist recalled too easily an imperial self-image of science which was being comprehensively taken apart by work in the postcolonial tradition of STS and history of science. The second piece we read, by Anders Blok in 2010, is part of that ongoing conversation, and is an effort to make use of some of John Law and Annemarie Mol’s refinements of ANT, which have sought to replace the emphasis on network bigness and stability with new notions of fluidity, flux and volatility. Blok takes the case of climate change and carbon markets to examine what ANT can tell us – not just about the expansion of calculative networks, but about the capacity of climate change and its circulating scientific and policy instruments to be challenged on grounds of equity and justice, through actor-networks which enact very different senses of what ‘global climate change’ means. This new way of figuring the political through ANT is highly relevant to thinking about conferences as sites not just of enrolment and calculation, but of dispute and disruption.

Finally, we returned again to Florian Weisser and his work on conferences and environmental diplomacy, this time with his paper on documents in the climate change regime. Weisser’s work challenges us to understand documents not just as repositories of meaning or vehicles of discourse, but as material agents in the conduct of politics. His work is informed by ANT and also by the practice theory of Theodore Schatzki, and proved stimulating for thinking about how conferences and their outcomes are shaped by the very material and practical geographies of circulating documents, of bodily comportment and mental stamina, and of the arrangement of conference spaces – something which has cropped up in a number of previous sessions.  Thinking about these spaces with ANT, about their production through webs of human-nonhuman associations, is potentially very productive. How to conceptualise the agency of the nonhuman in these spaces, and of course how to recover that agency in official archives from which it might have been erased, is certainly worth thinking about further.

Posted in Reading groups