Actor–Network Theory

Focus

Emergence and self-maintenance of social networks

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … constantly rehearsed relationships (among elements in a network)
  • Knowing is … rehearsing relationships (among elements in a network)
  • Learner is … networked assemblages / material and semiotic networks among humans
  • Learning is … adapting (i.e., changes in a network to maintain its viability)
  • Teaching is … N/A

Originated

1980s

Synopsis

Actor–Network Theory (ANT) is founded on the assertion that everything exists in dynamic networks of relationship. Aiming to describe how networks are assembled and maintained, ANT’s focus is on relationship – that is, not on individual entities (actors) but on the assemblages comprising interrelationships of humans and nonhumans (actor–networks). Human and nonhuman elements of social situations – the nodes of the network – are seen to be on the same level. That is, objects, processes, thoughts, persons, and so on are seen as equally important. Agency and power are located in the material (physical) and semiotic (conceptual) associations among humans and nonhumans (i.e., the network’s links).

Commentary

Originating in sociology in the 1980s, ANT is now a prominent theory in political science, health professions, business, and education. Consequently, ANT has evolved considerably since it was first introduced, to the point it cannot be considered a single or a coherent theory. In another vein, proponents of ANT draw a sharp distinction between description and explanation, asserting that ANT as concerned with the former. While many see this focus as a strength, some have argued that a theory that doesn’t provide explanations is of limited value.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Bruno Latour; Michel Callon

Status as a Theory of Learning

Few proponents of ANT would regard it as a theory of learning. However, if the “learner” is taken to be a constantly shifting network of relationship, ANT might be seen as an innovative and disruptive theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Because it is focused on description rather than explanation, ANT is more focused on understanding the structures and dynamics of networks than on influencing or transforming them. As such, ANT should not in any way be construed as a theory of teaching. That said, ANT can operate in studies of formal education to inform, for example, policy, curriculum, modes of information exchange, power structures, and so on.

Status as a Scientific Theory

ANT is unwaveringly scientific. It is associated with extensive research across multiple disciplines.

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Actor–Network Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.


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