The actor network theory, developed in part by Bruno Latour, is a social theory. It looks at the natural and social worlds and how they are composed of constantly shifting relationship networks. The theory suggests that these networks are what create our reality and that nothing exists outside of them.
Any process, thought, idea, object, or any other universal item deemed to be relevant is equally important to the development of a relationship as the humans involved in the creation of the relationship. Instead of social forces existing on their own, they are created by everything that is within the universe. That means a social force cannot be used to describe a social phenomenon.
Latour helped to develop the actor network theory with his colleagues Michel Callon, John Law, and several other contributors.
What Is the Actor Network?
The actor network theory looks at how smaller networks come together to act as a whole network. Different clusters of actors help to create meaning in real-time, moving and adapting as they are influenced by other clusters of actors. Anything is a possible actor, including technology, animals, and nature itself.
Once an actor engages with the network, they become part of a specific cluster. Each cluster interacts with other clusters to form a larger group. Different cluster groups interact with each other, perhaps forming an even larger singular network. Although some actors may choose not to interact with a cluster, the moment they engage with any type of network, they become part of a larger network of relationships.
That means virtually all actors today are the sum of other, smaller actors from previous relationship interactions.
An automobile is an excellent example of how this theory applies. If you own a vehicle, then there’s a good chance that you think of it as a singular item. In reality, an automobile is a complex system that is composed of hundreds of electronic and mechanical parts. Some of these parts are used by the driver constantly, while other parts contribute to the vehicle’s use, but are hidden from view while the vehicle is operating.
When the automobile is working correctly, the effect of singularizing remains in effect. If the vehicle should stop operating, however, then the vehicle is no longer viewed as a singular object. It becomes an object with many parts because one of the smaller parts has stopped operating as it should.
The smaller parts are the network clusters described in the actor network theory. The vehicle is the actor that is made up of the sum of the various clusters. At the same time, each individual part is its own actor, making its own contribution to the operation of the vehicle whenever it is called upon.
Concerns with the Actor Network Theory
There are three primary concerns associated to the actor network theory by critics of this idea.
- Certain attributes and properties that are assigned to humans are not attributed to the non-human actor that may be within a cluster.
- The conception of agency is not necessarily a reflection or presupposition of intentionality.
- Actors are often segregated into human subjects and non-human objects instead of being classified in one general term.
The real question that is asked of the actor network theory involves morality. Humans are generally given credit with the idea that morality can be a decision that is made. It is a reflection of higher thought. It is because of morality that humans are classified as subjects and non-humans classified as objects.
Would it be accurate to say that all non-human entities are incapable of moral choices? Mark Rowland, a philosopher associated with the University of Miami, suggests that animals could have the capability of making moral decisions. In his book entitled Can Animals Be Moral?, Rowlands suggests that any social mammal has the capability of making a moral choice.
If that were the case, then humans would have moral obligations to them. These “moral animals” would become subjects instead of objects. Should they be treated otherwise, then the conclusions of the actor network theory would be invalid.
Another argument could be made that morality from humans is based on instinct instead of higher logical thinking or reasoning. That would explain why morality can be arbitrary and inconsistent in families, cultures, and ethnicities.
There does seem to be a connection that everyone has to everything in this universe. The Bruno Latour actor network theory provides one explanation for these connections.