Negotiating Meaning: An ANT Approach to the Building of Innovations

Negotiating Meaning: An ANT Approach to the Building of Innovations

Fernando Abreu Gonçalves (Technical University of Lisbon, Portugal) and José Figueiredo (Technical University of Lisbon, Portugal)
DOI: 10.4018/jantti.2010070101
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Using an ANT approach based on Programs of Action the authors explore the description of innovation cases to discover internal referents that conveys their meaning. This paper revisits some old and well known histories like the application of ecography to obstetrics and gynaecology and the making and evolution of the computer mouse. Finally, the authors change from these localized cases of innovation to other histories on a more global frame, that is, the cases of two firms, one in the semi conductor industry, and the other in the mould for plastics industry. These descriptions are used as a way to research on the building of an ANT view for engineering innovations and wonder at the ability in which Actor-Network Theory (ANT) adapts and conciliates micro and macro worlds.
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Conceptual Positioning

The Mediation Work

The work of mediation (reductions and amplifications, framing and summing-up) (Latour, 1993b) cannot be done without uncertainties. That is what we intend to show with Figure 1, adapted from Latour (1991), where the different influences onto an actor are manifold – an actor is never alone.

Figure 1.

Ontological regions and the mediation work, adapted from Latour (1991)


It is an ANT ground that there are no pure natural or social facts, which means that we travel in a middle position of a virtual horizontal axis (natural-social), bound by its margins. In terms of the vertical axis (local-global) we also look for another way of viewing how actors align themselves in a network. Of course an actor-network has no local and no global places, has it also has no natural and social bounds. Going from natural to social and from local to global is a simplified way to describe the mediation that is always a messy work in the margins, Le goût des marges (Latour, 1991).

To be able to follow the paths of mediation, the referents that enable the understanding of events and actor’s work, we reinterpret Latour’s formulation as depicted in Figure 2.

Figure 2.

The messy work of the mediation


In our research we approach the description of some cases of innovation with this ANT based view as a method to understand the management of engineering design processes. That is, what we are trying to do is to figure out a practical way to navigate the work of mediation, a way to register the referents that allows the building of innovations.

We already proposed this approach as a way to manage scope in engineering design projects (Gonçalves & Figueiredo, 2010). These two papers reflect the constructivist leaning of our research. The use of some practical tools (a methodological approach for field work and a computer-aided tool) whose specifications have being obtained as a result of this research, will hopefully allow us to do practical work on these matters and obtain and report results in a more formalised and concrete way.

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