“Theoretical frameworks provide a particular perspective, or lens, through which to examine a topic. Theoretical frameworks usually come from other disciplines – such as economics, the social sciences, and anthropology – and are used by historians to bring new dimensions of their topic to light. Theoretical frameworks, however, are even more specific than these broad subject approaches. Theoretical frameworks are specific theories about aspects of human existence such as the functioning of politics, the economy, and human relations. These theories can then be applied to the study of actual events.”
Actor-network theory as a theoretical framework
Despite the ease of theoretical frameworks in allowing analyses of events and objects to be developed, my interest lies more in the maintaining the difficulty of objects through allowing numerous viewpoints and perspectives to remain. Within anthropology, the use of actor-network theory (ANT) is one such framework which enables this to happen. Developed from science and technology studies (STS), actor-network theory is a mixed method analytical framework which combines elements of post-structuralism and material semiotics. In this way, it suggests that “entities take their form and acquire attributes as a result of their relations with other entities, [in other words, that] entities have no inherent qualities” (Law, 1999, p3)
The non-essentialist nature of objects from the ANT perspective, also demands that these objects perform themselves in order to enact their characteristics in relation with other objects. In doing so, it “[insists] on the possibility, at least in principle, that [these characteristics and relations] might be otherwise. Some, perhaps many, of the essentialisms that it has sought to erode are strongly linked to topology, to a logic of space, to spaciality”. (Law, 1999, p7)
The problems with actor-network theory
However, the success of ANT in destabilising essentialisms, by understanding entities as being performed through networks, has led to “its own topological assumptions [becoming] naturalized”. (Law, 1999, p8) By naming actor-network theory as a particular way of interpreting materials, the theory itself became essentialised.
Thus, when John Law asks in his essay ‘After ANT: Complexity, Naming and Topology’: “What is a theory? Or, more broadly, what is a good way of addressing intellectual problems?” (Law, 1991, p1), his aim is not only to consider the method of academic enquiry, but also to undermine the development of actor-network theory as “a specific strategy with an obligatory point of passage”. (Law, 1999, p2).
Since the development of actor-network theory in the 1980s and its subsequent incorporation into other disciplines, there has been much work undertaken by STS scholars to address the problems of ANT. At the beginning of ‘Recalling ANT’, even Bruno Latour criticises the name he gave to his method by saying that “there are four things that do not work with actor-network theory; the word actor, the word network, the word theory and the hyphen!” (Latour, 1999, p15)
The problems in naming ANT for Latour, are not just embedded in its fixed nature, but also in what the name implies, as the fixation of social scientists on the opposition of the actor and the network (or agency and structure) appear to be borne out in his terminology. However, Latour denies that this was his aim, and also that agency and structure are the real oppositional forces, preferring to focus instead on close and distant readings.
Two dissatisfactions of social sciences
He states: “It is not exactly true that social sciences have always alternated between actor and system, or agency and structure. It might be more productive to say that they have alternated between two types of equally powerful dissatisfactions: when social scientists concentrate on what could be called the micro level, that is face to face interactions, local sites, they quickly realise that many of the elements necessary to make sense of the situation are already in place or are coming from far away; hence, this urge to look for something else, some other level, and to concentrate on what is not directly visible in the situation but has made the situation what it is. This is why so much work has been dedicated to notions such as society, norms, values, culture, structure, social context, all terms that aim at designating what gives shape to micro interaction…
But then, once this new level has been reached, a second type of dissatisfaction begins. Social scientists now feel that something is missing, that the abstraction of terms like culture and structure, norms and values, seems too great, and that one needs to reconnect, through an opposite move, back to the flesh-and-blood local situations from which they started… And so on ad infinitum.” (Latour, 1999, p16 -17)
In Latour’s articulation of these “two dissatisfactions”, I recognise my own struggles in locating my artwork within the micro of my practice and the macro of the conditions of its production and reception. However, through applying the logic of actor-network theory to the art making process, it is possible to conclude that art as a social object, possesses the “property of not being made of agency and structure at all, but rather of being a circulating entity”. (Latour, 1999, p17)