Actor Network Theory - Relevance for Anthropology

In my recent 'fieldwork' I stumbled upon a couple of incidences where it occurred to me that actually the agency of things plays a crucial role. Just as Woody Allen expressed in the conference for his latest movie 'To Rome with Love' cities for example often have agency themselves. 

In my personal example it is the importance of cups, dogs, signs or possibly crouches for the beggar. They 'mark' him as a beggar and signify his neediness. Without those 'signs' he is hardly recognizable as somebody who wants 'something for nothing'. This on the other hand protects him from the police - because begging in the UK still is a criminal act. If there is no cup, nobody can prosecute him to a certain extent. Without being able to so far further follow this route, I would be interested in your opinion on the topic. 

1. Is ANT in general something anthropologists work with? Are there possibly approaches that follow a similar route (regard things as agents) just under a different name? Do you possibly have example of studies where this notion was used?

2. Do you think it might be interesting to work with this idea also in the context of the beggar?

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Comment by John McCreery on August 26, 2012 at 3:45am
"ANT also seems to be to be uniquely suited to the case of technology, which often is mysterious enough that it seems to have agency (and perhaps even personality."

Kate, This observation in particular is, I believe, a very important one. It certainly fits my own experience, in which (1) agency is attributed to complex devices that behave in unexpected ways; conversely (2) people are described as dehumanized or not themselves when they perform in too predictable ways; and (3) cartoons in which objects are "brought to life" (Disney cups and teapots, for example) by depicting them acting in ways that these normally lifeless objects do not.

On a more academic plane, I think of economic sociologist Donald MacKenzie's description of the impact of IT on trading desk behavior in _Material Markets: How Economic Agents are Constructed_ plus, of course, common descriptions of markets themselves as searching, choosing, anxious, exuberant, depressed, etc.
Comment by John McCreery on August 25, 2012 at 4:28pm

Hi, Kate. Thanks for contributing to the discussion. Just want to second what you say here.

Comment by Kate Wood on August 25, 2012 at 1:13pm

 I'm currently using ANT (along with Kopytoff's idea of the object biography) in exploring the role of mineral production and extraction in conflict in the DRC. I find it a useful framework for considering the role of things in a situation where "social" is not easily defined (can't be defined at the national level, mass migration makes it tough to select at the local level, and the interpersonal level gets ugly). However, that's a case where material conditions and interactions are directly relevant to the connections between people, making ANT useful for that situation. ANT also seems to be to be uniquely suited to the case of technology, which often is mysterious enough that it seems to have agency (and perhaps even personality). I'd personally be more inclined to go with Goffman and performativity of the self in your instance, given that the crutch, cup, dog, etc. are appurtenances of the beggar that socially signify rather than agents of themselves, exactly.  I know you said you're not familiar with Goffman, but if you've got time he's not hard, it's an intuitive theory.

Comment by Michael Alexeevich Popov on August 22, 2012 at 3:20pm


Bruno Latour's classical book on ethnography of science contains some assumptions of ANT.Please, see also

Oxford - Sciences Po Research Group # Sciences Po has been associated to the departments of Politics and International Relations and Sociology of the University of Oxford, and to the Maison Française since 2005, through the Oxford-Sciences Po Research Group in the Social Sciences. OXPO supports various research projects, on topics like the «non-Western» dynamics of international politics, the sociology of elites, electoral decision, legislative studies, memory and democracy in Europe, and so on. OXPO offers various possibilities to Sciences Po’s young and senior researchers to stay at Oxford and reciprocally, welcome at Sciences Po ou Oxford colleagues on a regular basis #

Comment by John McCreery on August 22, 2012 at 2:09pm

No, I am not proposing a dramaturgical approach as opposed to ANT. I am saying that there is a significant body of work that employs a dramaturgical approach. If ANT is proposed as a better alternative, I want to know what is supposed to be better about ANT. To what extent, for example, does attributing agency to a cup improve my understanding of how the way it is handled contributes to the beggar's presentation of self as a beggar? As opposed, for instance, to observing that a cup must be presented in a certain way as part of a beggar's performance; a performance that would be spoiled if the cup contained coffee and the "beggar" were drinking it?

To me, personally, ANT is primarily useful as a reminder that the relations of material things to each other constrain human behavior, countering the naive assumption that a human agent's wish or will is sufficient for an action to occur. "Joe pointed the pistol and pulled the trigger" is one kind of story if the pistol fires; another story entirely if the pistol jams. "Life was good in Pompei" means one thing in an autobiographical reflection by an author who died fighting in a legion somewhere along the Rhine; another thing entirely if the next phrase is "and then Vesuvius erupted." Does attributing agency to the pistol or Vesuvius add materially to our understanding of these events? I remain skeptical.

Comment by Keith Hart on August 22, 2012 at 10:50am

Yes, Johannes, it is both. Here is my conclusion to the small book I mentioned:

"The formal conclusions of this essay are consistent with late Durkheim. Every human being is a unique person who lives in society. We are therefore all individual and social at the same time and the two are inseparable in our experience. Society is both inside and outside us; and a lot rides on our ability to tell the difference as well as to make a meaningful connection between them. Society is personal when it is lived by each of us in particular; it is impersonal when it takes the form of collective ideas. It is therefore just as damaging to insist on a radical separation of individuals and society (or of life and ideas) as it is to collapse the difference between them. Modern capitalism rests on a division between personal and impersonal spheres of social life. The institution of private property initially drove a conceptual wedge between our individuality and an active sense of belonging to society. Indeed the latter was made invisible or at least unreachable for most of us. But then private property assumed the form of public ownership by large business corporations and even governments. It then became convenient to collapse the difference between personal and impersonal spheres in law, leaving a general confusion between the rights of individual citizens and those of abstract social entities wielding far more power than any human being. The consequences for democracy are disastrous."

Comment by Johannes Lenhard on August 22, 2012 at 10:25am

Thanks a lot, Keith and John, for your again very though-provoking introduction! 

Two questions:

To John: So your proposal is to rather look at 'dramaturgical' framework than go to the Frenchmen and their ANT? So depict what I call devices as 'inventory' or 'equipment'. Unfortunately, I am not that far acquainted to Goffman as to object against this, but my feeling somehow tells me that he does not go so far as include cups in a position of agency. But the question you raise is obviously fundamental: is this necessary at all? In the end, the cup would not be able to raise money, would it? So its agency is very much limited. One administrative question: have you got references to Burke and Turner books/articles that might be worth reading?

To Keith: You seem to be very much on the side of the ANT-enemies. When you say 'the contemporary failure to distinguish' this makes me a little nervous ;) But the example you give (Supreme Court ruling / corporate personhood) really much make sense for me and give a very interesting context. I also really like your argument in the end; I just finished a little piece on bankers/the crisis and the influence of culture on it (which is to a certain extent also a 'thing' with 'agency' only that it is even more abstract). Herein I use Karen Ho's ethnographic work ('Liquidated') to make an argument about how important it is to incorporate culture in the picture BUT still look at INDIVIDUAL agency (rather than exculpate them - 'It was the trend, the bank, the ethos - not me' might Diamond want to say). So I am pretty much on line with you here. However, it is nevertheless to incorporate both, isn't it? Just as in the debate about the gift we had (its never one or the other - both play a role that shape the outcome/effect).

Comment by John McCreery on August 22, 2012 at 7:02am

There is a long tradition in anthropology of regarding things like the cups, dogs, signs or crouches you mention as signs, symbols, markers or props as devices for claiming a status or enacting a role. The assumption is, of course, stolen from Shakespeare—"All the world's a theater." Kenneth Burke, Erving Goffman, and Victor Turner all come to mind. The methodological issue about ANT or other similar approaches is what they add to understanding that isn't already there, more easily and perhaps even better explained using the existing dramaturgical frameworks. 

Comment by Keith Hart on August 22, 2012 at 6:37am

You could start with the online discussion of Martin Holbraad's OAC Press Working Paper Can the thing speak?. There is great interest in Latour's approach among younger anthropologists for whom collapsing the human/non-human divide is a matter of passionate concern. This is amplified by the approach known as perspectivism which is associated with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Philippe Descola. This has been debated in Huon Wardle's thread Comparative ontologies and cosmologies and in his OAC Press Working Paper, Cosmopolitics and common sense plus online discussion.

You must be pretty far gone if you think a beggar's cup can be an agent. But then Latour, in his desire to put down scientists whose work he couldn't understand, once claimed that it was the molecules that did all the work, not Pasteur.

In The Hit Man's Dilemma, I argued that the contemporary failure to distinguish persons, ideas and things derives from collapsing the distinction between real and artificial persons in law through the introduction of the notion of corporate personhood in the late 19th century. The most recent consequence of this was the US Supreme Court ruling that restrictions on corporate political spending compromised their "human rights", with results evident in the current presidential election.

So, in my view, ANT is an extreme version of a general intellectual trend that subverts the possibility of achieving real democracy in our decadent societies. For what hope is there if people can't see the difference between the agency of a sign and the social conditions for citizens to take responsibility for their own actions?


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