894 Reading Notes: Latour/ANT (Week 8)

I decided on a different approach for this week’s reading notes because I felt like terminology was so important for understanding Latour’s theory. Thus, I have decided to define what I see as major terms for this theory using quotes from Reassembling the Social.

Intermediary: “what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs” (39)

Mediators: “cannot be counted as just one; they might count for one, for nothing, for several, or for infinity. Their input is never a good predictor of their output; their specificity has to be taken into account every time. Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning and elements they are supposed to carry” (39)

Action: “is not done under the full control of consciousness; action should rather be felt as a node, a knot, and a conglomerate of many surprising sets of agencies that have to be slowly disentangled” (44); “When a force manipulates another, it does not mean that it is a cause generating effects; it can also be an occasion for other things to start acting” (60)

Actor/actant: “not the source of action but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it” (46); “anything that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor–or, if it has no figuration yet, an actatnt” (71)

Agency: “presented in an account as doing something, that is, making some difference to a state of affairs, transforming some As into Bs through trials with Cs” (53)

Social: “the name of a type of momentary association which is characterized by the way it gathers together into new shapes” (65); “social is nowhere in particular as a thing among other things but may circulate everywhere as a movement connection non-social things. Stage two: social is back as association” (107)

Objects: “objects, by the very nature of their connections with humans, quickly shift from being mediators to being intermediaries, counting for one or nothing, no matter how internally complicated they might be” (79)

Network: “does not designate a thing out there that would have roughly the shape of interconnected points, much like a telephone, a freeway, or a sewage ‘network.’ It is nothing more that an indicator of the quality of a text about the topics at hand. It qualifies its objectivity, that is, the ability of each actor to make other actors do unexpected things” (129)

I understand these terms best when I can see them through a concrete example. This video provides a good overview of Actor-Network Theory and I think the example of cell phones is helpful for understanding the intervention between purely social and purely technological approaches to advances:

An example from Latour’s text itself that I found particularly helpful was the puppet example on page 60. This notion of neither the puppet nor puppeteer being in complete control of the movements of the puppet was a helpful example for considering how humans and objects each contribute to an action.

Image of semiautomatic weapon below the phrase
Image from http://www.ifyouonlynews.com/guns/guns-dont-kill-people-argument-destroyed-with-one-glorious-meme-image/

An example I often think of with ANT is the question do guns kill people. The image on the left clearly argues for a completely social notion of action and is poking fun at the notion of causality coming from an object. However, Latour is not interested in causality. If we go back to one of the defintions of action listed above, Latour claims, “When a force manipulates another, it does not mean that it is a cause generating effects; it can also be an occasion for other things to start acting” (60). For Latour, the answer is not that guns people or that people kill people, it’s that people and guns are mutually influencing each other creating a network that allows for/creates the action of shooting someone.

Meme of Dwight Schrute from the television show The Office with the phrase
Image from http://frabz.com/1g23

And as this meme shows, there are actually far more actors involved in the action including the bullet and person’s organs that influence whether the outcome is actually a person’s death.

This example really bring home for me the value of ANT in negotiating issues where both social and technological objects are involved in producing certain effects and actions. Focusing on just one or the other misses the full picture.


Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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