ant & the indians

October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment


© Tomas Saraceno
Focus on 14 Billions, 2010
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This is a literature review, meaning that the purpose will be to lay down the groundwork for the possibility of a future study. The emphasis here will be to simply look at and consider the works in question. The prevailing theme of the four papers under discussion is the social sciences. With that said, it’ll be noted that there are convergences, overlaps, and networks amidst the social sciences that meld into other disciplines, this will become evident with the exploration and definition of actor-network theory (ANT) along with Martinez’s (2006) study concerning American Indians. The many relationships will be a way to define ANT. The Encyclopedia of Social Theory lets us know that “…the key ideas of what came to be known as actor-network theory (ANT) were first formulated in a 1981 paper by Michel Callon and Bruno Latour. Their work, along with that of John Law, has been closely identified with the approach” (Barry, 2006, pp. 4-5). Of these three authors, two will be considered here, Bruno Latour (1990) and John Law (2007). Bruno Latour has become a prominent spokesperson for ANT along with his many speaking engagements, curatorial and writing efforts. By way of introduction, it’s important to understand a few things, but there is still one key word we’ll need to think about before we even get to a full fledged analysis. As Latour opens his discussion of ANT he makes a quick mention of the word ontology (1990, p. 1). It’s vital that this word be defined before anything else, because if we don’t know what ontology means, then we won’t have any root to understand ANT. Ontology usually has to do with being with special consideration given to the origins of being, but when we consult The Oxford Companion to Philosophy it indicates that “Different systems of ontology propose alternative categorical schemes” (“Ontology,” 2005). This shows us that ontology is not only about being, but it is also about the way things are categorized and how they’re related generally and specifically. In a way, this has everything to do with ANT, as defined by Latour, Law, Allen (2011) and Dolwick (2009). It will also be clear that this isn’t a theory per se. ANT can be generally thought of as an application. This will explain why Martinez has been included. Her work is here to bring in a study of two American Indian tribe’s efforts to negotiate and work with government officials, archaeologists and the like. Hers is an emphasis on cognitive psychology and communication. The possibility of fusing ANT to her project in an upcoming paper will offer an in-depth bridge to work in the humanities and to demonstrate the links ANT shares with any alternating disciplines.

If anyone is an authority on the clarifications and complications of actor-network theory (ANT) it’s the sociologist of science and anthropologist Bruno Latour (1990). In his paper “On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications Plus More Than a Few Complications” Latour makes it clear that understanding ANT is no simple task because of the way one has to make essential structural changes to the very core of how we think of how things and people are working—with agency—in a network. He starts with a definition of ANT by showing that ANT is not to be confused with engineered networks like a telephone network, a transportation network, etc. Instead these networks are said to be “…the final and stabilized state of an actor-network” (p. 2). A good way to think of this might be to think of the various interactions we have with others and the interactions we have with objects, aside from a more formalized ‘network.’ We don’t need something to already be named a network to call it a network. It is important to note that ANT doesn’t account for the exclusivity of human relationships as the social sciences have traditionally explored. Instead, ANT closes any gap between the human and non-human actors within any heterogeneous (unique) relationship, without the other traditional devices of spatial dimensions of distance, scale and interior/exterior. This is probably the fundamental feature of ANT that differentiates it from most other social science ideas—most only account for the human with minor, or no consideration for objects. If anything, as mentioned earlier, ANT is ontological, in that it seeks to explore, investigate and include the relationship of things and humans (and vise versa). Also, ANT is less of a theory, and more of a relational methodology. In a way, an actor (or actant, the two terms are interchangeable) is defined by its relational effects without any space between the connections (p. 5). This means that when we act, for example when we’re typing on a keyboard with someone else online, there is nothing that separates these actions in a network. Yes, there can be spatial differences, but not in that sense that the network would be any less of a network if these physical distances were closer or more distant. ANT has grown from the discipline of semiotics, but it doesn’t concern itself exclusively with text and language, instead it is extended to the sciences (and into other arenas), thereby questioning the notions of physical nature as being “out there” (p. 8) and society as being “up there” (p. 8). ANT is relational rather than relativistic. ANT grants no a-priori (presupposed) assumptions about relational network patterns. Latour says that “a network is not a thing, but the recorded movement of a thing [within a network]” (p. 14).

The prominent sociologist John Law (2007) is another innovative proponent of ANT. In his paper “Actor-Network Theory and Material Semiotics,” Law will immediately make the connection to semiotics (the study of signs, language etc., their relationships and the conceptual meanings thereof) and how ANT had its origins in semiotic theory, with its well known emphasis on the material (things, not just the human). This repeats one of ANT’s indispensible features: the role and agency of the non-human, along with the agency of humans as both material mediators in a heterogeneous network. Law is keen to point out that ANT is not actually a theory, but an approach that looks to find connections, relationships, accounts, stories (etc.) about these findings. Remember that an aim of ANT is to be used as a tool to perform a study and to use it to do research. When using ANT in the field one would have to employ effectively it to have enough know how with it to gather data to then make observations and hypothesize about the findings to propose new ideas and so forth. Material-semiotics, instead of ANT, seems to better apply to what Law describes as a term that “…better catches the openness, uncertainty, revisability and diversity of the most interesting work” (p. 2). Law stresses the relational qualities of ANT and sometimes these relations are unrecognizable. Law then looks anecdotally at the intricacies of the developments of ANT, its intimate relationship with the sciences and engineering. The theme/metaphor of language translation (perhaps reaching to its semiotic roots) is looked at as a way to think of how networks can misinterpret each other, i.e. each actor network speaks its own language, and this translational idea stems from the complicated work of the philosopher of science Michel Serres (p. 5). Then there are the intrinsically interactive themes of order and disorder, recalling that ANT is about finding and recognizing heterogeneity (disorder) out of a preconceived operational order (networks). Law emphasizes the recognition of “…process and its precariousness…” (p. 7) as it’s related to a given network’s reliance on process and how to keep the network together. Power also is vital to a network’s ability to retain it, and most importantly how its power affects other networks and actors. Law also shows how ANT grew out of a so-called “post-structuralist relationality” (p. 12) that took cues from the philosophies of Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari (we’ll be looking to them in an upcoming humanities paper). Since ANT itself emerged from post-structuralist tendencies, Law indicates that “crucial to the new material-semiotics is performativity” (p. 12), in other words, this has to do with how things (actors/actants) perform, operate, relate, interact, react, repulse, reject etc. There is the importance of multiplicity, for example, how a singular body can have a multiplicity of networks that deal with it. Fluidity is additionally named as a way to think of networks as having fluid connections that lack centers, hence the heterogeneity of fluid network (p. 14). Throughout his paper Law demonstrates with scenarios that demonstrate how ANT is used to examine an array of scientific, sociological, anthropological, networks and the human and multiple non-human actors thereof.

The maritime archaeologist Jim S. Dolwick’s (2009) paper “The Social’ and Beyond: Introducing Actor-Network Theory” is another excellent introduction to actor-network theory via an extensive definition of the word and concept of the social. Using ANT, Dolwick promises to get beyond the norms concerning the way the social is understood, his view “…allows us to move beyond the restrictive ontology of the social” (p. 1). Dolwick presents a brief, yet precise, history of how specific sociologists and philosophers (Bataille, Bauman, Bourdieu, Deleuze and Guattari, Durkheim, Luhmann, Marx, Lacan, Weber and others) have understood the complexity of the word social that clearly has a wide array of meanings, once it’s cracked open and sorted through. The social can simply mean an association, but usually this takes into account the multiplicity of meanings that have traditionally positioned the human actor as the center of the social, rather than the human’s involvement/association with non-human actors. The idea that the social means association is solid link to ANT’s non-human component.

Continuing with Dolwick’s (2009) study, there’s a view of the word social that gets a little narrower and “…refers to human aggregates or humans-among-themselves…” (2009, p. 22). This is the perspective of the social sciences where the human to object connections are ignored and the emphasis is how humans interact and pass knowledge within a strictly human domain. Here is where we find some of the unconscious influence on the social, but not too much attention has been given to the agency of objects. The last definition Dolwick looks into has to do with the social to mean “social structures and social facts” (p, 22). This perhaps the most restrictive meaning where the social “…stands apart from other concepts such as ‘individual,’ ‘psychical,’ ‘natural’ [etc.]…” (p. 22). Because the social has been defined in these confusing ways, Dolwick has to resist a working definition by stating that “…there are so many different ways of defining and characterizing this concept [the social] that it almost has no meaning” (p. 23). This leads Dolwick to conclude that there is little agreement as to what the central paradigm of sociology actually is. Dolwick has to then show how the sociologists and philosophers were positioned within a complex web (perhaps a network) of polarities and similarities, with attentive regard to how each defined the social (p. 25). Dolwick determines that the popular philosophical team Deleuze and Guattari are the most similar to ANT. This shows how philosophy and the social sciences eventually meet. Few metaphors are as well-known as Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome’s similarity to ANT. About the rhizome Dolwick writes “visually, this is depicted as a decentered system of points and lines, which can be connected in any order and without hierarchy” (p. 34). This connection to ANT is important and it will be looked at in the promised humanities paper. Meanwhile, Dolwick carefully guides his study through the complicated history of the social that leads to a working definition of actor-network theory (ANT) as defined earlier by Callon, Latour (1990) and Law (2007). ANT is unusual in the practice of social theory because of its insistent inclusion of all non-human actors into a decentralized network of associations. Dolwick’s final overarching consideration has to do with how archaeologists understand the social in connection with its artifacts of inquiry.

Much like Dolwick (2009) had to work hard to define the social, Casey D. Allen’s (2011) paper “On Actor-Network Theory and Landscape,” wrestles with the ever-changing definition of the word landscape and how it has been used in tandem with the equally challenging concept of nature. Both meanings (landscape and nature) are usually held together, and both are typically thought of as human constructs. First we have “landscapes as human-in-nature” (p. 275) and then we have “landscapes as nature-in-human” (p. 275). The first is the most traditional view that man resides in nature and his landscape is what he sees around him. According to Allen landscape “…stems from something with which I’m already familiar, something perhaps socially constructed” (p. 275). Which leads to a construct of “nature-inhuman” (p. 276) that can be viewed in terms of consumption (something to be consumed, or a place to consume), similarly it can be thought of a human construct. With these multiple considerations, Allen then has to look at landscape through the ideas of several sociologists and philosophers (Bourdieu, Foucault, Marx, Lefebvre, Thrift, Soja and others). For instance, Bourdieu’s habitus (roughly comparable to the way humans relate to the environment and the social with a strong emphasis on agency and less of an emphasis on determinism) is related to Foucault’s notion of how the body becomes a place of mediation for the social, nature, landscape etc. (p. 276). Allen entertains the metaphor of the natural root (of a tree) to the urban environment of New York’s subway system of ‘routes,’ hence illustrating a connection to the natural in the manmade. Lastly, Allen details and champions the specifics of how ANT can be an invaluable research tool in the study of landscape, physical geography and human geography along with other disciplines, yet without the usual spatial considerations these disciplines deploy (p. 278). ANT’s value has to do with its ability to contend with the heterogeneous, while at the same time deflating issues of time, space and scale—as elaborated by Latour (1990) earlier. It becomes easy to notice that all the intermeshed networks of the human, landscape, society, culture, urban and rural are already operate as networks, we simply have to do the research to find and identify them using the untraditional methodology of ANT.

Lastly, in the attempt to bring in an alternate voice that could be easily connected to ANT and its methodologies we’ve included a paper that demonstrates a ready-made network. With “Overcoming Hindrances to our Enduring Responsibility to the Ancestors: Protecting Traditional Cultural Places” Desireé Reneé Martinez (2006) draws on her intensive work with two American Indian tribes, the Wana Pa Koot Koot and the Payos Kuus C’uukwe of the Northwest United States, who were negotiating with archaeologists and U.S. government officials to outline what she identifies as problems with the way the groups mis/understand each other within a cognitive social psychological framework. This is “in recognition of archaeology as a colonial and imperialistic tool…” (p. 487). Looking to the specifics of how the different groups were negotiating to preserve sites of cultural interest in the late 1990s, she observed several preconceived cognitive notions, presumptions and misperceptions that each side had about the other group. Martinez names “Naïve realism, the fixed pie myth, loss aversion and the status quo biases” (p. 491) as potential negotiating pitfalls that each of the groups might have. These cognitive problems would therefore have to be eliminated and worked on before any work on the cultural sites would be done (or avoided). Essentially all parties involved would have to create a way to reflect on their own bias beforehand in order to move forward. Her general theme is that to collaborate one must look inward to fix prejudices, before looking outward to attempt to help others. As mentioned several times before, this paper is brought in the mix with an eye to possibly compare Martinez’s work with ANT in a later project, showing that not only is cognitive psychology an important factor, but also the actants of landscape, nature, cultural artifacts, ideas and places, are of relevance using ANT’s unique perspective.

With all this said it becomes clear that this very research is its own heterogeneous network that requires the effort of study and evidence to become another venue by which to observe the social, humans and nature as equally powerful actors ready to make newer meaning, relationships, systems and networks that will continue to grow and manifest far beyond these small introductory steps.

Aurelio Madrid


Allen, C. D. (2011). On actor network theory and landscape. Area, 43 (3), 274-280. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01026.x

Barry, A. (2006). Actor-network theory. In Encyclopedia of social theory. (4-5), New York, NY: Routledge.

Bennett, T. (2007). The work of culture. Culural Sociology, 1 (1), 31-47. doi: 10.1177/1749975507073918

Dolwick, J. S. (2009). ‘The social’ and beyond: Introducing actor-network theory. Journal of Maritime Archeology, 4, 21-49. doi: 10.1007/s11457-009-9044-3

French, B. M. (2012). The semiotics of collective memories. The Annual Review of Anthropology, 337-353. doi: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-081309-145936

Ginn, F. & Demeritt, D. (2008). Nature: A contested subject. Key Concepts in Geography, 300-311. Retrieved from

Latour, B. (1990). On actor network theory. A few clarifications plus more than a few complications. Soziale Welt, 47(4): 369-81. Retrieved from

- – - . (2007). The recall of modernity. Anthropological approaches. Cultural Studies Review, 13 (1), 11-30. Retrieved from

Law, J. (2007). Actor network theory and material semiotics. Centre for Social Science Studies and Department of Sociology, 1-21. doi: 10.1002/9781444304992.ch7

Martinez, D. R. (2006). Overcoming hindrances to our enduring responsibility to the ancestors: Protecting traditional cultural places. American Indian Quarterly, 30 (3/4), 486-503. doi: 10.1353/aiq.2006.0030

“Ontology” (2006). In The Oxford companion to philosophy. (670). New York, NY: Oxford.

Walker, W. & Schiffer, B. (2006) The materiality of social power: The artifact-acquisition perspective. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 13 (2), 67-88. Retrieved from

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