Mediated Action and Network of Actors: From Ladders, Stairs and Lifts to Escalators (and Travelators)

Mediated Action and Network of Actors: From Ladders, Stairs and Lifts to Escalators (and Travelators)

Antonio Díaz Andrade (Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand and Universidad ESAN, Peru) and Samuel Ekundayo (Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand)
DOI: 10.4018/jantti.2011070102
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Both actor-network theory and activity theory call attention to the coexistence of people and technology. Although both theories provide analytical tools to understand the nature of the reciprocal action-shaping of humans and nonhumans, each puts emphasis on different conceptual elements of human activity. In this paper, the authors examine both activity theory and actor-network theory and present their similarities and differences, limitations, and complementarities. Using the theoretical lenses of both theories, the authors trace the evolution of an ordinary artifact to illustrate how researchers on the sociology of technology and innovations can benefit from these parallel theoretical approaches.
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Actor-Network Theory

Actor-network theory rejects the underlying unalterable view of objects and subjects purported by essentialism, which only recognises their fundamental characteristics and ultimate functionalities. Actor-network theory challenges the generalised assumption that humans and technology constitute a stable and predictable system (Latour, 1987). The origins of actor-network go back to symbolic interactionism, which assumes that the meaning humans ascribe to things determines how the former act on the latter. Furthermore, symbolic interactionism also recognises that the ascribed meaning is not immutable but emerges from social interaction and is continuously modified through interpretation. In this sense, actor-network theory recognises a continuous negotiation process between people, technology and their context (Hanseth, Aanestad, & Berg, 2004).

Actor-network theory is fundamentally the study of the association between humans and nonhumans (Callon, 1986; Latour, 1986). It assumes symmetry between the social and the technical, both equally powerful on influencing each other. Moreover, Latour (1999b, 2005) calls attention to the artificial nature of the entity society, which cannot exist by itself. In actor-network theory vocabulary, collective seems to be a better suited word to describe the association of both humans and nonhumans. Actor-network theory stresses the combined nature of the intertwined dyad formed by people and things – both material and immaterial. Latour (1999b) vigorously claims, “we live in a hybrid world made up at once of gods, people, stars, electrons, nuclear plants, and markets” (p. 16). The elements of this hybrid world only exist in the representational space: “no reality without representation” (Latour, 1999b, p. 304).

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