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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.

 

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Using Actor-Network Theory in ICT4D Research

30 July 2011 14 comments

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.

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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