a rant on ant

Over at Scatterplot, Andy Perrin has a nice post pointing to a recent talk by Rodney Benson on actor-network theory and what Benson calls “the new descriptivism” in political communications. Benson argues that ANT is taking people away from institutional/field-theoretic causal explanation of what’s going on in the world and toward interesting but ultimately meaningless description. He also critiques ANT’s assumption that world is largely unsettled, with temporary stability as the development that must be explained.

At the end of the talk, Benson points to a couple of ways that institutional/field theory and ANT might “play nicely” together. ANT might be useful for analyzing the less-structured spaces between fields. And it helps draw attention toward the role of technologies and the material world in shaping social life. Benson seems less convinced that it makes sense to talk nonhumans as having agency; I like Edwin Sayes’ argument for at least a modest version of this claim.

I toyed with the possibility of reconciling institutionalism and ANT in an article on the creation of the Bayh-Dole Act a few years back. But really, the ontological assumptions of ANT just don’t line up with an institutionalist approach to causality. Institutionalism starts with fairly tidy individual and collective actors — people, organizations, professional groups. Even messy social movements are treated as well-enough-defined to have effects on laws or corporate behavior. The whole point of ANT is to destabilize such analyses.

That said, I think institutionalists can fruitfully borrow from ANT in ways that Latour would not approve of, just as they have used Bourdieu productively without adopting his whole apparatus. In particular, the insights of ANT can get us at least two things:

1)      It not only increases our attention to the role of technologies in shaping organizational and field-level outcomes, but ANT makes us pay attention to variation in the stability of those technologies. It is simply not possible to fully accounting for the mortgage crisis, for example, without understanding what securitization is; how tranching restructured, redistributed and sometimes hid risk; how it was stabilized more or less durably in particular times and places; and so on.

You can’t just treat “securitization” as a unitary explanatory factor. You need to think about the specific configuration of rules, organizational practices, technologies, evaluation cultures and so on that hold “securitization” together more or less stably in a specific time and place. Sure, technologies are sometimes stable enough to treat as unified and causal—for example, a widely used indicator like GDP, or a standardized technology like a new drug. But thinking about this as a question of degree improves explanatory capacity.

An example from my own current work: VSL, the value of a statistical life. Calculations of VSL are critical to cost-benefit analyses that justify regulatory decisions. They inform questions of environmental justice, of choice of medical treatment, of worker safety guidelines. All sorts of political assumptions — for example, that the lives of people in poor countries are worth less than people in rich ones — are baked into them. There is no uniform federal standard for calculating VSL — it varies widely across agencies. ANT sensitizes us not only to the importance of such technologies, but to their semi-stable nature—reasonably persistent within a single agency, but evolving over time and different across agencies.

2)      Second, ANT can help institutionalists deal better with evolving actors and partial institutionalization. For example, I’m interested in how economists became more important to U.S. policymaking over a few decades. The problem is that while you can define “economist” as “person with a PhD in economics,” what it means to be an economist changes over time, and differs across subfields, and is fuzzy around the borders.

I do think it’s meaningful to talk about “economists” becoming more influential, particularly because the production of PhDs happens in a fairly stable set of organizational locations. But you can’t just treat growth theorists of the 1960s and cost-benefit analysts from the 1980s and the people creating the FCC spectrum auctions in the 1990s as a unitary actor; you need ways to handle variety and evolution without losing sight of the larger category. And you need to understand not only how people called “economists” enter government, but also how people with other kinds of training start to reason a little more like economists.

Drawing from ANT helps me think about how economists and their intellectual tools gain a more-or-less durable position in policymaking: by establishing institutional positions for themselves, by circulating a style of reasoning (especially through law and public policy schools), and by establishing policy devices (like VSL). (See also my recent SER piece with Dan Hirschman.) Once these things have been accomplished, then economics is able to have effects on policy (that’s the second half of the book). While the language I use still sounds pretty institutionalist—although I find myself using the term “stabilized” more than I used to—it is definitely informed by ANT’s attention to the work it takes to make social arrangements last. Thus I end up with a very different story from, for example, Fligstein & McAdam’s about how skilled actors impose a new conception of a field — although new conceptions are indeed imposed.

I don’t have a lot of interest in fully adopting ANT as a methodology, and I don’t think the social always needs to be reassembled. The ANT insights also lend themselves better to qualitative, historical explanation than to quantitative hypothesis testing. But all in all, although I remain an institutionalist, I think my work is better for its engagement with ANT.

Written by epopp

June 5, 2014 at 8:31 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Well that’s hardly a rant! It is, though, very insightful.

    I largely agree with the ways you envision using ANT. In particular the idea that assemblages ossify and then structure future action in relatin to them is often true and explains some thorny outcomes. But this strikes me as a single element of ANT and that, to return to Benson’s piece, a use of ANT that ANTs themselves would disapprove of for its causal emphasis.



    June 5, 2014 at 9:23 pm

  2. A potentially provocative question: isn’t ANT’s understanding of “actors” (or “actants”) and agency equivalent to a notion of causality? Here’s Sayes’s (2014: 8) gloss of ANT’s take on agency (including a quote from Latour):

    “ANT adopts a complicated but nonetheless minimal conception of agency. It is minimal because it catches every entity that makes or promotes a difference in another entity or in a network. Latour (2005: 71) maintains that one need only ask of an entity ‘[d]oes it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to detect this difference?’ If we can answer yes to these two questions, then we have an actor that is exercising agency – whether this actor is nonhuman or otherwise. It is thus not the case, as Khong (2003: 703) suggests, that the human becomes the ‘standard measure’ of agency, but that the ‘standard measure’ of agency becomes dehumanized: the ability to make a difference.”

    How is identifying the set of actors with “the ability to make a difference” different from identifying causes?


    Dan Hirschman

    June 6, 2014 at 4:05 am

  3. @Dan

    >isn’t ANT’s understanding of “actors” (or “actants”) and agency equivalent to a notion of causality?

    I’d say ANT offers an empiricist (inductive) ‘theory’ of causation, as an alternative to rationalist (deductive) theories of causation, where “theory” itself is reinterpreted as a method, i.e. the truth of a (social) fact needs to be established through the act of empirical description, where ‘description’ itself is reinterpreted as a socio-material (and material-semiotic) way of constructing an account. To quote Latour (2005: 103), “to explain is not a mysterious cognitive feat, but a very practical world-building enterprise that consists in connecting entities with other entities, that is, in tracing a network.”

    >How is identifying the set of actors with “the ability to make a difference” different from identifying causes?

    The difference is in the “how” of identification and the definition of a “cause”. For ANT, an empirical description is its own explanation, using the actors’ own ‘theories’ (or methods) of action in lieu of a theory of causation (the ethnomethodology part of ANT).

    Causality emerges not from an original cause but from the occasion created by actors (mediators) engaged in the mediation, transportation, modification and re-creation (‘translation’) of action: “the word ‘translation’ now takes on a somewhat specialized meaning: a relation that does not transport causality but induces two mediators into coexisting” (108).



    June 6, 2014 at 8:26 pm

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