Home > Theorising ICT4D > Using Actor-Network Theory in ICT4D Research

Using Actor-Network Theory in ICT4D Research

Actor-network theory (ANT) has been around since the 1980s, and significantly utilised in some disciplines, such as information systems.  But – oddly – it has hardly been applied at all in development studies, including within ICT4D research.  That is recently starting to change but to give some further impetus, we organised an international workshop in June 2011: “Understanding Development Through Actor-Network Theory”.  You can find online a working paper series derived from the workshop (plus also a summary of the workshop and abstracts and presentations).

Actor-network theory began as a means to explain how science works, such as the operation of scientific laboratories and projects.  However, it has subsequently grown to be seen as a full-blown social theory.  In particular, ANT says three things.

First, it says, “Hey, sociologists, you’ve been so obsessed with humans that you’ve been ignoring all the objects in the world.  But those objects – documents, mobile phones, plants, websites, etc – play an important role; just like humans they shape the people and other objects around them. So ANT is going to treat them the same as people, and call them both ‘actors’.”

Second, it says, “Hey, sociologists, because you’ve been so obsessed with humans, you think that society and social contexts or social factors are what explains everything in life.  But you’re wrong.  In fact you’re so wrong you’ve got your basic equation of life the wrong way around.  You think that society explains what goes on in the world.  Nope.  What goes on in the world is what explains society.  So ANT is going to focus on the mechanics of life: the ways in which people and objects interact with each other.”

Third, it says, “Hey, more recent French-type sociologists, you’ve been so obsessed with breaking things apart to understand the bits of grammar and bits of history that made them that your idea of researching a clock would be to smash it to pieces with a hammer.  That is not how to research a clock.  To research a clock you need to understand how all the pieces got put together, following the network of people and objects that interacted in order to make that clock.  So ANT is going to focus on how networks are assembled.”

Much ANT writing is horribly obscure, so full of hideously complex sentences and words that the writers must surely have done this deliberately in the hope of avoiding Oscar Wilde’s dictum, “to be intelligible is to be found out”.  But, done well, ANT can tell a good story and even occasionally give you the sense that you are suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light.  A whole new light that – because it’s about dynamics and innovations and technology and networks – seems especially relevant to ICT4D.

A couple of good entry points – good because they each provide a fairly clear and portable conceptual framework that you can re-use in your own research – are:

-         Callon, M. (1986) Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay, in: Power, Action and Belief, J. Law (ed.), Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 196-233

-         Law, J. & Callon, M. (1992) The life and death of an aircraft: a network analysis of technical change, in: W.E. Bijker & J. Law (eds), Shaping Technology/Building Society, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 21-52

Also not too unreadable is Latour’s Reassembling the Social, though had Latour been shot half-way through the dialogue with a PhD student that is reported in the book, I can’t help feeling a verdict of justifiable homicide would have been returned.

Although, as noted, use of ANT in ICT4D research has been limited there have been enough examples, at least from developing country cases within the information systems field, that we get a sense of the questions ANT is good at answering:

-         How do you explain the trajectory of an ICT4D project?

-         What role does technology play in an ICT4D project?

-         How does power manifest itself in an ICT4D project?  How were apparently powerless actors able to influence the direction of an ICT4D project?  How was it that apparently powerful actors didn’t get their way on an ICT4D project?

-         How does a particular ICT4D innovation (be it a new technology or business model or idea) diffuse or scale-up or sink without trace?

-         How did a particular ICT4D impact or ICT4D policy come about?

If you’ve identified other ICT4D questions that are especially suitable for an ANT lens, then do contribute them.

If you want an example of applying ANT in ICT4D that also includes a reflection on the pros and cons of the theory, and some thoughts on applying it in your research, I can recommend:

-         Stanforth, C. (2007) Using actor-network theory to analyze e-government implementation in developing countries, Information Technology and International Development, 3(3), 35-60

There is also a discussion of the relation between ICT4D and ANT in:

-         Rubinoff, D.D. (2008) Towards an ICT4D geometry of empowerment: using actor-network theory to understand and improve ICT4D, in: Developing Successful ICT Strategies, M.H. Rahman (ed.), Information Science Reference, Hershey, PA, 133-154

And feel free to comment on other ICT4D literature that makes use of ANT.

If you would like to participate in discussions about ANT, you can join our online forum on LinkedIn at: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/ActorNetwork-Theory-in-Development-Studies-3995328

We are also populating a group on Mendeley with reference details, and welcome contributions: http://www.mendeley.com/groups/1255941/actor-network-theory-in-development-studies/

Finally, the first of our working paper series delves into some of these issues in greater detail: “Development Studies Research and Actor-Network Theory

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  1. 1 August 2011 at 10:53 am

    Hi Richard,

    Thank you for this summary blog; I will be looking at the mentioned papers.
    Is a question like how does ICT (technology) adoption influence/catalyze transformational change of organisations active in the ICT4D field suitable for applying ANT?

    • Richard Heeks
      1 August 2011 at 11:24 am

      Definitely looks so to me. For example, you could pick a particular type of ICT (e.g. mobiles, or social media, or ERP, or whatever) or a specific ICT project, and you could use the moments of translation approach to look at how that ICT and its human and non-human allies tried to catalyse transformational change in the organisation by mobilising a network to support such change.

      If you are finding resistance to that, then the idea of the ‘counter-network’ can be helpful – you can find an example that uses the counter-network idea with ANT in Gao (2007) Counter-networks in standardization: a perspective of developing countries,Information Systems Journal, Volume: 17, Issue: 4, Pages: 391-420

  2. Richard Heeks
    1 August 2011 at 12:42 pm

    Found a useful overview summary of the main elements of / ideas within ANT via a set of slides at: http://bid.berkeley.edu/cs260-spring09/images/c/cd/Actor_Network_Theory.pdf

  3. 3 August 2011 at 9:38 am

    Agreed, ANT can seem terribly obscure and it has taken me qute a while to wrap my thoughts around Latours ideas. But they do also offer a fresh perspective on the sucess of failure of information technology projects, much more useful than diffusion theories or TAM.
    While I’ve mastered the general jist of this ANT, I have also been trying to work out how I can apply ANT to a large scale project to equip students with their own Internet enabled computing devices at my University – and I must confess that this is rather taxing.

    • Richard Heeks
      3 August 2011 at 5:29 pm

      Putting ANT into practical use definitely is a challenge. There are certainly those who take the view that ANT is a research approach only and should not be sullied with anything as vulgar as practical implications. I lean more towards the notion that there are practical implications, but they particularly relate to playing politics. Thus your best practical primer for ANT-based action would be Machiavelli’s “The Prince”!

  4. Devinder Thapa
    5 August 2011 at 10:56 am

    Actor-Network theory is suitable to explore the network formation process, however, it does not explain how this network leads to development. In this case, my question is, do we need to classify the form of network to better understand the phenomena. For example, the network can be classified as a network of bonding (family ties), bridging (horizontal ties), or linking (vertical) ties. As literature suggest, to achieve macro level development the community needs to build horizontal and vertical ties. In my opinion, ANT does not tell the type of network and its consequences on development. My proposition is ANT combined with other social theories, for instance, Social Capital in this case may provide a lens to better understand and explain the process of ICT intervention and its consequences on development.

    • Richard Heeks
      6 August 2011 at 12:39 am

      I think one first needs to be clear with social capital whether you are researching it as a cause of development, or part of the development effect. Certainly it’s correct that ANT would be relatively poor for the latter; i.e. at explaining development effects; but it’s good at explaining how those effects arise. Interestingly Donna Rubinoff (appearing yet again) takes almost an opposite perspective to that in Devinder’s comment in – http://spot.colorado.edu/~rubinoff/diss/Chapter%202.pdf – essentially arguing that the limitations of social capital theory would naturally lead us to ANT (and beyond) as a more all-encompassing way to understand how development comes about.

  5. clive
    15 August 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Can’t seem to access this source. Rubinoff, D.D. (2008) Towards an ICT4D geometry of empowerment: using actor-network theory to understand and improve ICT4D.
    Is there another source?

    • Richard Heeks
      15 August 2011 at 7:26 pm

      The best source would be a library or buying the book or you could email the author to ask if she has available copies of the chapter. If you follow the link in the blog and type the book (not chapter) title into the BookFinder search box that appears, you will find links to online versions of the book but these are illegal and potentially untrustworthy.

  6. Ntosh Wayi
    29 November 2011 at 3:48 am

    Hi Prof. Heeks. I am doing a study on Ethics in implimenting ICT4D projects. I would like to find out what are your views in using ANT as a theory of enquiry.

    • Richard Heeks
      29 November 2011 at 4:38 pm

      Hard to make much of a comment, though I would imagine there are plenty of conceptual frameworks and theories of ethics that could form the basis for the analytical structure for this study, and thus remove the need for any other framework like ANT.

      I’ve only come across one paper that I recall looking at the intersection of ideas on ethics and ANT: Richardson’s 2004 paper in Ethics, Place and Environment – http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1366879042000332989.

      (ANT is sometimes criticised for its lack of ethics, but of course that’s a different issue to the question of whether/how to use it to study ethical issues.)

  7. 20 March 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Nancy Odendaal’s PhD dissertation on “Information and Communicication Technology and Urban Transformation in South Africican Cities” makes great use of ANT and is a really interesting read. Available at: http://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/handle/10539/9634

  1. 4 May 2013 at 8:55 pm

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