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Actor-Network Theory, Technology and Development

What can actor-network theory offer to our understanding of technology and development?

This blog entry summarises the answer from an open access paper in the journal Development Studies Research: “Technological Change in Developing Countries: Opening the Black Box of Process Using Actor–Network Theory”, and it builds on an earlier entry on ANT and development.

Technology rather dropped from the development agenda during the 1980s and 1990s, but has re-emerged strongly in the 21st century; not least due to the spectacular diffusion of ICTs.

Yet, to date, conceptualisation of technological change in developing countries has had three problematic gaps:

  • It has been de-humanised: organisations are recognised as actors but people – as identifiable individuals with agency – rarely appear in the technology and development literature.
  • Technology may be understood as a physical artefact, as a system of elements, as the embodiment of knowledge. But it is not seen as playing any active role: technology is acted-upon but is not itself acting.
  • Research has tended to study factors or social structures affecting processes of technological change. But it does not describe those processes in detail: actual practices of change tend to be black-boxed.

In sum, research to date has typically stood outside the technology processes it seeks to investigate; freezing them in time and concealing their main actors.

As luck would have it, these are just the kind of lacunae that actor-network theory was intended to address.  Yet application of ANT to cases of technological change in developing countries has been rare; and within development studies literature, almost non-existent.  So new ANT-based case studies of technology and development are required to assess what insights actor-network theory can offer.

One such case study – applying Callon’s “moments of translation” to a digital information system in the Sri Lankan public sector – is presented in the Development Studies Research paper (which should be accessed for full details).  It finds that an initial network supporting technological change fell apart in mid-project, and had to be reconstructed around a new technology design and a new vision for future change.

Three challenges emerged in applying ANT:

  • Methodological: admission of subjectivity in framing an ANT-based case, and problems of thinning out detail to fit a journal-length account.
  • Analytical: that ANT can provide a rich description of how things happen, but stutters in seeking to analyse why.
  • Instrumental: the difficulty of extracting practical guidance from ANT other than rather “Machiavellian” prescriptions.

On the other hand, the case analysis shows that ANT can open the black box of technological change processes and offer new insights:

  • Networks: explaining the networks of relations that both support and oppose technological change, and also the detailed process by which they come to be formed, dissolved, etc.
  • Technology: exposing the active role that technology plays in international development – shaping, enabling, co-operating, resisting, etc.
  • Human practices: providing a detailed account of the role played by individuals and groups in technological change; particularly the way in which lead actors modify the perceived interests and even identities of others involved.

ANT therefore shows us not just that human interests, identities and relations change in a technology-and-development project; it also explains in what way they change, how it is that those changes come about, and how they relate to the project’s trajectory.

The case analysis shows that ANT will not help answer questions about the impact of context on technological process, or about the developmental impact (in the traditional sense) of technology. However, it may help to answer questions such as:

  • How do we explain the trajectory of a technology and development project?
  • How does a particular innovation in a developing country diffuse, scale up or sink without trace?
  • What role does technology play in processes of technological change?
  • How does power manifest itself in such processes? How are apparently relatively powerless actors sometimes able to influence the direction of technological change? How are apparently relatively powerful actors sometimes not able to get their way on a technology project?

As the technology used in development becomes more complex, more interconnected, more intertwined into the lives and livelihoods of developing communities, and changing at an ever-faster pace; then ANT will likely become more relevant and more useful as a conceptual frame.

 

  1. 2 November 2015 at 6:07 am

    Hello Richard. Nice article. I want to read more about your views on ANT and STS. Have you published any other article or research paper?
    I would be more than happy to read them.

    Ashish

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