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Monday, September 06, 2004

Yes, that is a pig soaring among the clouds with wild abandon.

And what is the reason for this remarkable display or porcine aerobatics? Well, I'm about to say something not entirely negative about a certain sliver of post-modern theory. I know, I know... I'm as surprised as anyone.

This weekend I have been doing some reading on social movements. This does, I suppose, make more sense than reading about anti-social movements, which are notoriously difficult to organize. In any case, I was specifically reading Edward Walsh's 1981 article on the incident at Three Mile Island and David Snow et al.'s 1998 article on disrupting the quotidian.

And yes, for those who noticed, I have been thinking a lot about social movements lately.

These articles are interesting for two specific reasons. Both ask the question: can sudden, sharp events drive people into collective action? Secondly, the former article presents an interesting case where a socio-technical system that enjoyed great legitimacy at one point in time (Nuclear energy) experienced a fall from grace that made it vulnerable to popular opposition. This is particularly interesting given, as Walsh notes, that Nuclear energy is an industry with extensive ties into the U.S. government, owing to its tremendous infrastructural costs.

What these two articles reminded me of is a little something from the sociology of knowledge called "Actor Network Theory." For those who are unfamiliar, ANT is essentially what would happen if post-modern sensibilities and approaches to knowledge were to be fused with structural network analysis. Now, having said that, it's of course necessary to note that this is a little like saying that Marxism was fused with Nike-style offshore manufacturing. Network analysis and post-modernism are quite a bit like oil and water: you can throw them at each other, but they just don't mix.

So, what is Actor Network Theory, really? What does it like? What doesn't it like? Does it date much?

Actor Network Theory emerged as a distinct theoretical tradition in the early nineteen-eighties. This approach to understanding science and learning was originally conceived partly as a critical reaction to social construction theory, then the dominant explanation for science and knowledge.

Social construction argues that scientific understandings of the world, just like political or religious understandings, are generated by essentially social processes. Individuals and collectivities, both powerful and powerless, jointly determine how reality will be defined. This is the case for concepts of etiquette, for tradition, and for what is or is not regarded as scientific fact. That science justifies its claims as deriving from evidence and impartial logic in no way alters the fact that evidence and logic are merely means for legitimating a particular order, much as divine will may be used to legitimate a king. As such science can be analyzed like any other social system- there is nothing inherently new or unique about it.

Theorists of what would become ANT objected to this approach to science and technology because it pays little attention to the nature of physical objects.(Pickering: 1994, Latour: 1988) Material things appear in this context as passive templates on which human will is stamped. Aluminum becomes whatever it is constructed as by its human users. The actual material properties of aluminum, however, are not entirely open to discussion, and many appear to be fixed. Therefore, any theory of technology that makes no reference to these physical properties is doomed to fail.

While budding ANT theorists consider the physical properties of objects and artifacts to be important, however, they did not want to fall into the trap of technological determinism, in which the development of technology is thought to derive entirely from the physical. (Law & Singleton: 2000) This led to a sort of balance where human actors construct meanings and understandings about the physical world, but do so as part of a dialogue with independent physical things operating as actors.

This leads to one of the primary theoretical positions of ANT: that humans, and objects, are treated identically as actors. This is not to say that humans and objects are not morally distinguishable, John Law (1992) goes to considerable lengths to make it clear that they are. Rather, to say that humans and objects should be treated the same is to make a theoretical assertion that they are equally important elements in a theory explaining science and technology. Rather than submit to the object-chauvinism of technological determinism theory, or the human-chauvinism of social construction, ANT argues that both humans and objects are powerful actors who mutually determine both the nature of physical artifacts and the social membrane that explains and justifies them. Thus, a human social understanding of a technology cannot diverge too much from the physical characteristics of the artifact, and the artifact’s capabilities are not entirely the result of human desire/will. In this sense, objects are considered to possess agency, (Pickering: 1994) in that they can “voice” their own views of reality and force humans to negotiate with them, rather than being an infinitely malleable, utterly passive, clay on which human ambition may be writ.

It is from this acceptance of objects as actors that ANT provides a point of entry for the network metaphor. If technologies and understandings are the outcome of a process of negotiation between humans and objects, then the first step to understanding a particular technology is to determine what humans and objects are engaged in this negotiation. This is, in the most fundamental sense, like the anthropologist who uses a sociogram to map the ties between different members of the same community. Instead of a human community we are faced with an ontological community. This view of networks is often summed up in the ANT literature with reference to “heterogeneous networks,” meaning networks composed of multiple different types of actors, rather than just people OR objects.

ANT takes the network metaphor further, however, in asserting that each of the actors in this new community are themselves not only tied to each other, but to other elements beyond this one community. Further, each participant object may itself be composed of other objects, and each human actor may be composed out of other such human actors. Each node, then, is its own network. Therefore, on the one hand, what defines a technology is the specific pattern of relations between the humans and objects that make it up, and the humans and objects are themselves composed of relations between other humans and objects. ANT takes the strong position that the techno-social world is constructed entirely out of these relations, and not at all out of essences.

In an ironic, but not unreasonable twist, there is one point at which social construction and ANT are in perfect agreement: the use of power and conflict in the creation of the sociotechnical world. Social construction argues that humans collectively determine reality, but it does not argue that every human is equally influential in this process. Rather, some people, by virtue of person or group characteristics, are more influential, and others are less. This difference means that the generally understood nature of reality tends to reflect the perspective of the powerful more than the perspective of the weak. Similarly, actor network theory recognizes that different humans and different objects are more powerful, or forceful, in making their voice heard. Consequently, the particular way that objects and humans are structured into a new technology or understanding is partly the outcome of a power process. For humans, this may involve defining technology as something born out of masculine engineering prowess (Oldenziel: 1999) and for objects it may be as simple as fossil fuels making themselves indispensable to any process of modern industrial production. It may even be possible for a technology and a human actor to form a partnership such that they together create a mutually beneficial network: computer programmers need computers in order to find work, and computers need programmers to produce software in order to find owners. In each case particular actors may have more success in constructing a network to their liking than others.

It is this act of construction that forms the heart of the ANT concept of translation. While any particular human, or object, is simply a network of components, actors are not always aware of that network as a network. Rather the network is “translated” into a singular organism, or entity, on which operations may be performed and about which statements may be made. Thus, a complicated set of authority positions, rules, and artifacts, becomes “the government,” and a complex set of mechanical parts and human operators becomes “an automobile.” These translations are, ultimately, the spoils over which groups of actors, both human and non-human, fight. By winning a favorable network structure, and then translating that network, a group obscures the networks that underlie objects and understandings. These networks come to be taken for granted and are thus removed from the field of contention. Translation takes what are thought to be the outcomes of fluid negotiations and carves them into stone, to become taken-for-granted components in the next process of network building. Obviously, since each translated unit contains power relations, each later stage of network building is altered by the outcome of the former. As a result, the powerful continue to maintain and expand their power, while the weak are confronted with an increasingly monolithic and incontrovertible set of constraints. In is further apparent that, both due to previous acts of translation, and simply the structure of networks, some actors are blessed with more power than others. Power is a relational property. However, despite this accretion of power, the outcome is not considered predetermined. If an earlier translation loses legitimacy, essentially reentering the field of contention, the translations and relations built upon it may crumble to dust. The imposing edifice of established translations may vanish like the morning fog should even one of its constituent elements come into question, revealing that even the most powerful have feet of clay. (Law: 1992)

Now, I don't want you to think that I completely approve of, or agree with, Actor Network Theory. For starters, it is a theory that situates itself in opposition to science as a system. As eloquently stated by Bruno Latour in his book The Pasteurization of France, widely regarded as a deep work of ANT, “…we find the myth of reason and science unacceptable, intolerable, even immoral.” (Pg. 149) He goes on to assert that, “…we have to abandon many intermediary beliefs: belief in the existence of the modern world, in the existence of logic, in the power of reason, even in belief itself and in its distinction from knowledge.” (Pg. 150) Therefore, ANT in its pure/strong form is incompatible with what I would term "scientific" approaches to the study of social life. However...

However, there is an interesting idea or two buried in the vast and bewildering morass of ANT. Specifically, in this case, I am thinking of the concept of "translation." This concept embodies two central issues: the conversion of a multitude into a sigular entity, and the power-relations that such conversions entail. In the case of the former, the argument is, at heart, that perpetually dealing with a constellation of human and non-human actors is simply inconvenient for actual humans. Therefore, these constellations are encapsulated within conceptual envelopes and treated as being whole entities and not more or less amorphous clouds bound together in more or less stable ways. In terms of power, translation is interesting in that it argues that multiple rival translations may exist simultaneously. Thus, the same elements, or actors, may be assembled with different configurations of relations. Each of these rival configurations becomes the foundation for a rival translation of reality. Further, while one translation may win and become dominant, this does not mean that all other translations simply vanish. Indeed, because rivals will use many of the same actors in their constructions, it is likely to be impossible to entirely stamp out alternative translations.

That being said, each act of translation makes later translations more predictable. Much like the eventual size and shape of a house depends on its foundations, the nature of a given translation depends upon the translations accomplished earlier.

In some ways the most powerful metaphor for ANT’s conception of power may come from the Japanese strategy game “GO.” In GO black and white pieces are placed on a board, the object being to occupy as much of the space as possible. While initially the board is empty, allowing a wide variety of moves, over time the moves of the two players become more constrained, eventually reaching a point where each move is simply the effect of the last move. This provides a convenient way to illustrate the power of translation, and of accreting translations. At first, untranslated networks are like the empty GO board, allowing any of a number of interpretations. Over time, however, as translations are added, the construction of new translations becomes constrained, eventually perhaps reaching the point where there is such a mass of preexisting translation, that each new translation seems to be only a logical outgrowth of the previous. It is only by removing one or more translations, like removing one or more stones from the GO board, that this translative-lock may be broken and the dynamism of the system reawakened.

Thus, while rival translations may remain everpresent, their ability to contest for dominance may only reach significant levels when one or more of their rivals have been weakened by external conditions.

The reason I bring this up is not because I think ANT has a great deal to say about the Three Mile Island disaster, although that is certainly the sort of socio-technical system that ANT theorists dream of, but because the concept of translation has utility here. Rather than necessarily dealing with the specific nature of the technologies in question, indeed for most people the nuclear reactor remained a nuclear reactor- their understandings of the devices were not altered- it seems to me that translation might be a useful approach to understanding the value judgements made about the physical artifacts.

Walsh wonders how a resistance movement was able to spring up so rapidly, and concludes that it was in part due to the prior existence of anti-nuclear groups in the Three Mile Island area. Walsh is, doubtless, correct, but I wonder also about the role of underlying, defeated translations of the value of nuclear power that construed it as a threat, rather than as a benefit. Is it, perhaps, possible that in cases of rapid mobilization following a disaster that "disrupts the quotidian," as Snow & Friends would say, that what we see is not merely the action of pre-existing protest groups, but rather the shattering of an existing translation? Such an event not only makes room for new translations, but should weaken other translations, temporarily stunning the entire structure of social values. I wonder if rapid opposition to a disruption of life would even be possible were it not for the presence of rival translations that could step into place, before the disruption even occurs, and provide a new structure for understanding the world.

Such are, to me, interesting questions. In part I am interested because it reduces the cognitive load on humans. Constructing an entirely new worldview after some major event is, indeed, rather a lot to expect. It seems a bit more reasonable to wonder if, perhaps, the worldview wasn't newly constructed, but rather suddenly enjoyed a jump in its competetive success.

I also find myself intrigued because, for all of its mysticism about dialogue between humans and artifacts, ANT does manage to put an appropriate amount of emphasis on the physical characteristics of the world. Humans do not simply make the world up like we would a story, instead we construct values and judgements about a world that is largely independent of our desires and perceptions. Translation in ANT does provide both the room for those physical realities (implicitly allowing the reactor and its components to remain a reactor with the same properties) while at the same time allowing value-judgements about that reality (i.e. the configuration of ties between objects and humans, and the translations that embody them) to shift. It is not that our understanding of nuclear power shifted, as the strong version of ANT might argue, but that our understandings of nuclear power as good or bad that shifted. This system seems, to me, to be potentially useful in understanding rapid mobilization in response to dramatic changes of circumstance.

Now, it is possible that this sort of approach is already covered by the concept of "framing." I know little of framing theory, and thus cannot really say one way or another. I will comment, however, that from what I know of framing it seems both to be less sophisticated about the role of physical reality in constructing human reality, and less eloquent in terms of its incorporation of power dynamics. If, as I learn more about framing, I find that these perceptions are correct, I may well end up prefering translation in the end.

But that might just be my translation of the whole thing.

Works Cited:

Latour, Bruno. (1988). The Pasteurization of France. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA.

Law, John. (1992). Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity. Systems Practice. 5.

Law, John. & Vicky Singleton. (2000). This is Not and Object. Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University. (Published online here.)

Oldenziel, Ruth. (1999). Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women, and Modern Machines in America: 1870-1945. Amsterdam University Press. Amsterdam.

Pickering, Andy. (1994). After Representation: Science Studies in the Performative Idiom. Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association. 1.

Snow, David A., Daniel M. Cress, Liam Downey, & Andrew W. Jones. (1998) Disrupting the “Quotidian”: Reconceptualizing the Relationship Between Breakdown and the Emergence of Collective Action. Mobilization: An International Journal. 3(1).

Walsh, Edward J. (1981) Resource Mobilization and Citizen Protest in Communities Around Three Mile Island. Social Problems. 29(1).

Special Note: Some of you are, or should be, surprised to see me acknowledging post-modernism as anything other than a load of utter horseshit. Well, you should be. However, let this stand as a reminder that my views on the matter are not entirely unnuanced. Despite my general dislike of post-modern thought, about which I will write a post eventually, I do not dismiss it out-of-hand. If there is something in it that I find useful I am not afraid to acknowledge that. This should also remind my readers that I do not avoid reading post-modern work because I dislike it, but rather that I dislike post-modern work because I have read it. Some of us who dislike post-modernism do not do so out of ignorance of its claims, but rather due to our awareness of them.


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