D! Faculty Internat 26 // Actor-Network Theory

This week I ventured down to the southern part of Sweden for my first trip to the Medea lab in Malmö and my second experience with the D! Faculty Internat series. Each Internat is built around a topic somehow related to design research, and this meeting focused on an in-depth discussion of the social philosopher Bruno Latour and his work with Actor-Network Theory. Although I was acquainted with the name ANT, this was my first real exposure to the writing and philosophy behind it. Before the Internat we were asked to read to pieces by Latour, a 2010 piece entitled An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto and his 2005 book Reassembling the Social. Without any experience reading Latour or much knowledge of ANT, it was challenging reading. Not only were the concepts hard to wrap my head around, but the writing never seemed to provide any clear answers. There were moments where it appeared Latour was emphasizing, or reiterating an important point, but I couldn’t quite decide if I understood or not. A few times I found myself feeling like he was presenting his ideas as if they were so obvious and clear that a child could grasp them.

Thankfully, when I arrived at the Internat I learned that I was far from alone in my experience with the readings. The three-day seminar started off with a presentation by Torben Elgaard Jensen that outlined some of the arguments that span Latour’s career. Torben’s lecture helped clarify who Latour is and what is might be trying to do. One of the most the most revelatory insights I took away from Torben was his description of the split between the natural sciences and the “social” sciences. By looking at the historical development of science, it is interesting to consider how so many theories and perspectives have kept the natural and social worlds separate. To me, it makes sense that the natural and social are indeed connected—I have learned a little about embodiment in the past—and when discussing any scientific approach, it is important to consider the “actors” and “networks” that surround it.

Following Torben’s lecture we broke up into groups to discuss the readings in relationship to our own work. Our group took some time to get acquainted with each other and our individual research projects, which later on helped us connect ANT to our own experiences. The major thing I needed to get off my chest was the concern that the process of ANT appeared to be never-ending. As I understood it, when pursuing research from an ANT perspective, Latour suggests that the researcher trace the movements of actors related to the situation. However, according to ANT, it appears that anything can be an actor. One of the members of our group is researching materials for medical equipment that needs to be both cleanable and cost-efficient. Looking at such setting through ANT, it appears the researcher would have to trace the different staff at the hospital, the patients, the company that sells the medical equipment, the company that produces the medical equipment, the type of cleaner used to clean the equipment; but also, each of those actors has relationships that could play a role, such as families, friends, education, work experience, the diet, etc. Does it stop there? Or do we keep going to the family members’ family members, or the farms where the food they eat is grown, and the farmers who grow the food, and their families? Although we didn’t quite come to a conclusion in our group on the first day, we did have a good conversation grappling with the use of ANT in our work.
On the second day we had the chance to try a method based on ANT. Using articles from the newspaper, Alex Wilkie from Goldsmiths College, led us through an exercise in controversy mapping. It was a good chance to get out of pure discussion mode and start producing something with our hands. My group chose a controversy surrounding the recent film Zero Dark Thirty. One of our first steps was to review the guidelines for the activity. After some time discussing how to tackle the process, some further guidance from Alex, we started highlighting actors specifically mentioned in the content we pulled from the newspaper. Although had all heard Alex suggest that we stick to content we could clearly identify in the article, it was impressive how quickly we started to speculate from our own experience and interpretation of the topic. Even in just a short exercise it was valuable to see how hard it can be to follow Latour’s demand to stick to description rather than explanation. However, even with our battling of the subjective, we all seemed to find something intriguing or unexpected using the method. For me, I came away thinking of the importance of “reading” a map based not only on what is there, but what is not there. Our goal was to stick to the actors explicitly mentioned in the article, but it was interesting to consider how one “actor” in our map actually represents an entire organization of actors that could be overlooked.

After a lunch break—where we ate soup and watched a dance performance next door to the Medea studio—we regrouped to finish off the mapping presentations before moving on to the PhD presentations. We heard from two PhD students that are part of the D! Faculty, Zeenath Hassan and Henrik Svarrer Larsen. Each presentation was interesting in its own right and it was valuable to hear the different topics of projects, research approaches and styles of presentations. It was a little difficult to give feedback, but I imagine part of my difficulty comes from the fact that I am still learning how to critically view and respond to PhD work. However, I did take away that whatever form my projects takes I need to make it my own and have confidence in my project.’

Post coffee break there was a panel discussion among four relatively recent PhD graduates who had dealt with ANT in some way during their work. One of my main takeaways from their discussion was their focus on making ANT useful for their projects. Rather than simply subscribing to all things ANT, it seemed that they each had a critical stance on ANT and used it for very specific purposes in their work. I appreciated hearing them discuss ANT as a tool, because until then it seemed like I needed to either subscribe to all things ANT or I would be misusing it. Although, I will say that I am still somewhat wary of the danger of using ANT as a way to justify one’s work without full knowledge of what it is. Additionally, it was interesting to hear them describe ANT as a way to support the process of design intervention in their research. It seems that one of the pitfalls in ANT could easily be too much watching and not enough action. Especially from a design perspective—action is what we do! Messing with networks is fundamental to our work and I felt that come out in the panel discussion. Another good point that was brought up in the discussion was that we should not only consider what ANT can do for design, but what design can do for ANT. One answer was a characteristic of design that continues to come up again and again: the expertise that designers have in visualizing.

Before dinner the panelists sat in with us for another round of discussions. During the conversation I presented my observation about the experience of jumping to conclusions in the controversy mapping exercise. For a short time we talked about whether or not that was a particularly “designerly” thing to do. I think I dwelled on it because it seems that people who are not designers might have approached the activity much differently. While there are certainly plenty of factors at play in a group activity, it seems possible that a bunch of PhDs in chemistry might have approached things differently. We talked for a bit about the subject and how we might manage those “aha!” moments of design in what is supposed to be the slow and methodical process of mapping all the actors in a network. I’m not sure we reached any conclusions, but for me it seems possible to go back and forth between mapping and ideating, or to keep track of insights while still maintaining focus and rigor in mapping relationships.

The final morning we reformed in our discussion groups for one last talk about critiquing Latour. For many of us, I think our question for ANT is still “but how can I use it?!” Perhaps it is somewhat ironic that in Reassembling the Social Latour writes a fictional dialogue between an ANT professor and a PhD student who expresses exactly the same sentiment. While I see potential for ANT to play an influential role in my research, at this point I see it simply as a way to keep an eye on myself. I am a little bit wary of all the theories and frameworks out there and it seems like ANT could be a good way to keep myself grounded, focused, and critical of my own research.

As a last item on the agenda, we had a short presentation from SVID on their research journal. It seems like an organization that can be a great advocate for design research in Sweden and beyond, but they are still building their publication and dissemination strategies. They are pretty new, and I hope that the research done by students in the D! Faculty can help establish the credibility and value of the SVID publication.

Overall, the week was a great introduction to Actor-Network Theory and Latour. I am quite interested in learning more, but for now I have a few takeaways that sum up my experience. On the critical side, I have some remaining questions. In the dialogue between the PhD student and the professor, the student asks when he will know when to stop. According to the professor, the student should “stop” when it is time to turn in his paper. This idea sort of makes sense to me, but it also seems possible that I could easily drive myself mad trying to follow all the actors in a network. So I guess the question is, unless I want to make a single project my life’s work, how do I know what I should follow and what I shouldn’t follow? My second question goes back to the need to go all or nothing with ANT. The way Latour presents it, it doesn’t seem like something one can do halfway. My concern here is that if I only use parts of ANT, then I am missing out on what makes it valuable and valid as an approached to research. Finally, I only thought of this after the fact, but I have questions about defining actors. It seems clear to me that all types of objects can be actors, but what happens in the digital realm? Digital actors are so dynamic I wonder if ANT can meaningfully account for them?
On the positive side, I have a few simple and practical takeaways. One, I think that ANT points to the need to be slow and thorough in research. While it may seem like an obvious point to any experienced researcher, I like how ANT seemingly forces you to slow down from the sheer quantity of work it entails. Second, it seems that ANT is inclusive of multiple types of research and tries to break down epistemological boundaries. I have more to read on this, but I appreciate the idea of bringing together research from different traditions rather than criticizing different perspectives on knowledge. And on another process note, I like how a thorough mapping activity will help me to reflect on my own perspective in relationship to other perspectives around me. In my researcher, I am an actor in my own network, and visualizing the other actors I am connected with can force me to confront the position of my work.