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7. Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics

John Law


Subject Sociology

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405169004.2009.00008.x


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Actor network theory is a disparate family of material-semiotic tools, sensibilities, and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social and natural worlds as a continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located. It assumes that nothing has reality or form outside the enactment of those relations. Its studies explore and characterize the webs and the practices that carry them. Like other material-semiotic approaches, the actor network approach thus describes the enactment of materially and discursively heterogeneous relations that produce and reshuffle all kinds of actors including objects, subjects, human beings, machines, animals, “nature,” ideas, organizations, inequalities, scale and sizes, and geographical arrangements. In this chapter I explore this definition, expand upon, and qualify it. I start with four qualifications. First, it is possible to describe actor network theory in the abstract. I've just done so, and this is often done in textbooks. But this misses the point because it is not abstract but is grounded in empirical case studies. We can only understand the approach if we have a sense of those case studies and how these work in practice. Some other parts of social theory (for instance symbolic interactionism) work in the same way, and arguably that's how natural science is too: theory is embedded and extended in empirical ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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