PhD Reflections

Actor-Network Theory

If we take the view that the tools we use for certain actions do not simply facilitate them, but they ultimately transform them in a mutually constitutive way, then the study of one (actor) necessitates the study of the other (actor). As such, an approach known as Actor Network Theory (ANT), or ‘the sociology of translations’, takes the tools/artefacts themselves as the focus of enquiry and investigation. In this respect ANT levels the status of human and non-human actors (a construct known in ANT jargon as ‘symmetry’) in the construction of the social. This extends the fundamental assumptions underpinning sociocultural theories (SCT) which take the constructs of ‘mediation’ and ‘activity’ as the basic unit of analyses.

The ‘T’ in ANT is somewhat problematic in that rather than being a theory, ANT is a “way to intervene” (Fenwick and Edward, 2010: p. 1) in educational research and “how we might enact and engage” with it. ANT-based research is, therefore, not confined to any one methodological framework, and begins with an endeavour to “follow the actors” (Latour, 2005).

ANT therefore, for my research, may allow me to investigate the relationship/impact of computers on writing with neither a social nor technological deterministic bias. A computer’s affordances and limitations give it agency, and rather than focussing solely on the writers as ‘actors’ (who shape the technology they employ), or the computers (which determine human activity through their affordances), ANT sees all relevant actors in any network as each exerting an influence on the other. And when it comes to writing practices on computer, an ANT approach may provide a means of revealing complex depictions of the relationships between the ‘actors’ (the computer and its peripherals, the writer, the task at hand/writing assignment, fellow students, etc.). We can ask here: how are these ‘actors’ related?

Arguing against abstract notions of the ‘social’, Bruno Latour asserts that it is the “movement of re-association and re-assembling” (Latour, 2005: p. 7) which forms the basis of the social world; and as such it is the very creation and maintenance of these associations, or networks, which should be the subject of enquiry.

An ANT account of the impact of computers on writing, through the networks in which it takes place, has the potential to reveal the specific ways technology can exert its influence on writers, as well as how writers utilise the affordances, as subsequently allowing us to see how social orders are created and maintained.

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