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The OCR Glossary

Actor-Network Theory

Hagen Schölzel

Actor-network theory (ANT) examines the relatedness and interaction of diverse entities in so-called actor-networks. It develops new basic concepts for a sociology of translation and hybrid associations relevant to all subfields of sociology, which may also be employed to understand matters of public relations. This entry first elucidates ANT’s basic ideas and discusses its development. It then discusses criticisms of the theory and implications of the theory for public relations.

Beginning in the early 1980s, ANT was especially shaped by authors such as Madeleine Akrich, Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, and John Law, who were associated with the École nationale supérieure des mines, a leading engineering school in Paris. They worked within the sociological subfield of science and technology studies (STS), concerned initially with ethnographic investigation of processes of innovation and knowledge production in the natural sciences and engineering, and of large technical systems. This early work convincingly argues for devoting equal attention to, among others, things, ideas, technologies, and living beings (not only humans), to explain how new and successful entities develop as hybrid associations structured by the composition of their heterogeneous elements.

From the early 1990s on, ANT started to become popular beyond the narrow field of STS. It was received in other fields of the social sciences and humanities, for example, in media theory, and first-generation actor-network theorists also applied themselves to new fields of interest. Latour has devoted himself to various topics, such as anthropology, lawmaking, politics of nature, a new conception of sociology, a philosophy of modes of existence, religious speech, and also problems of “how to make things public.”

Although ANT is called a theory, it may better be understood as a methodological approach to material-semiotic associations. Doing ANT means first and foremost doing empirical sociological groundwork, which may also lead to new concepts or redefinitions of existing concepts. It has resulted in a plethora of writings connected by a common mode of thought. Actor-network theorists do not aim at explaining why something happens or a certain result occurs, but they try rather to describe how diverse heterogeneous entities may act together as an actor-network and thus form a new, specifically composed entity. The approach may therefore be relevant for further developing corporate reputation research from an instrumental to a more reflexive social science.

The term network is not to be understood in the sense of a pipeline-type infrastructure providing “transportation without transformation” but rather—in analogy to a semiotic network—as a relationship of elements that constantly perform “translations” going from one entity to another. In that sense, the approach shares similarities with other material-semiotic or poststructuralist approaches, for example, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theory of rhizomes, that is, nonhierarchical, “networked” ways of writing and knowledge representation inspired by the model of the botanical rhizome. At times, instead of using the term actor, ANT also employs the term actant to capture humans as well as nonhuman entities within the same concept. This is intended to help overcome the prevalent distinction between subjects with an exclusive capacity to act and objects capable only of being acted on. ANT instead implies a pluralist ontology, taking into equal account all kinds of entities and their respective agencies, resulting in varying, nondeterminate effects; they do not follow the principle of causality. ANT is sometimes also referred to as an actant-rhizome ontology or as a sociology of translation.

The approach involves denying the possibility of strictly separating single elements of actor-networks, because each social entity is defined by its relatedness to other entities and any entity is itself composed of a further heterogeneous actor-network, the agency of which is the effect of its specific composition. The term social is used as a synonym for the association, the in-between of heterogeneous entities drawn together in actor-networks. The theory thus undermines prevalent ideas of society as a “social sphere” or “social structure” distinct from humans, as well as concepts of the social as an aggregation of solely “human actors.”

One implication for corporations might be to reject the idea of a clear boundary between the organization and its environment. From an ANT viewpoint, corporate reputation management is not to hold such a supposed borderline by producing a certain image or reputation but rather to help organize processes of translation of a specific type between an entity called corporation and other kinds of connected entities.

Among other types of entities, the theory describes specific “immutable mobiles,” for example, inscriptions of knowledge on paper able to circulate, and specific humans, for example, public relations professionals, as being relevant for processes of innovation and knowledge production in science and engineering. Latour extends ANT to “an anthropology of the moderns,” in which he describes different “modes of existence,” for example, politics, law, and religion, each possessing its own particular rationality, also called forms of “veridiction,” and he also redefines the actual compositions and agencies of organizations and economic life.

Criticisms of Actor-Network Theory

ANT received severe criticism, especially in the mid-1990s, from two sides. First, ANT was criticized from within the field of STS, particularly for attributing equal agency to things and humans. The claim that all entities are equally equipped with agency, although intentionally acting humans and independent objects can be perfectly distinguishable, was seen as obscurantism raised to the level of a general methodological principle. Second, ANT (and Latour himself) was among the postmodern ideas (and philosophers) criticized by physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont for abusing concepts from the physical sciences in their 1997 book Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.

Those within ANT circles have criticized the approach for lacking a precise vocabulary. There is no specific criticism of ANT in public relations or corporate reputation research as these researchers don’t refer to the theory. A probable reason may be its very abstract philosophical argumentation, which needs further translation into matters of corporate reputation research.

Implications for Corporate Reputation

Actor-network theory has been employed in related fields, such as media theory and creative communications, but has not yet received greater attention in corporate reputation research. One reason for this may be that the ANT approach shifts between an ethnographic sociology and empirical philosophy, which at first glance does not easily correspond to the managerial and normative agendas dominant in corporate reputation research. It could nevertheless be of interest, first, for questioning the basic concepts of corporate reputation research and, second, for improving instrumental practices.

The ANT field has produced a number of writings dedicated to the publics and matters of communication. Conceptions of a “hybrid forum,” of a “parliament of things,” or of “material participation” have been developed to reconceptualize publics as heterogeneous actor-networks including issues, technology, “immutable mobiles,” and humans and their cooperative agency. These concepts closely refer to pragmatist theories of the public (e.g., the theories of Walter Lippmann and John Dewey), which are well received by public relations theory, for example, in James E. Grunig’s understanding of publics being the specific environments of organizations. ANT adopts the idea of various ephemeral and shifting entities as opposed to one public sphere. In addition, it goes beyond the limited idea of only humans acting publicly, for example, by taking into account the agencies of media technology or of matters of debate. However, the specific engineering of publics by corporate reputation management has not yet been scrutinized from that point of view.

Callon, M., Lascoumes, P., & Barthe, Y. (2011). Acting in an uncertain world: An essay on technical democracy. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Latour, B. (2013). An inquiry into modes of existence. An anthropology of the moderns. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B., & Weibel, P. (Eds.). (2002). Making things public. Atmospheres of democracy. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Marres, N. (2012). Material participation: Technology, the environment and everyday publics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Somerville, I. (1999). Agency versus identity: Actor-network theory meets public relations. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 4(1), 6–13.

Verhoeven, P. (2009). On Latour: Actor-network-theory (ANT) and public relations. In Ø. Ihlen, B. van Ruler, & M. Fredriksson (Eds.), Public relations and social theory: Key figures and concepts (pp. 166–186). New York: Routledge.

See Also

Postmodern Theory; Publics

See Also

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