A Critical Review of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Its Use in Education Research

A Critical Review of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Its Use in Education Research

Denise Mifsud (Euro-Mediterranean Centre for Educational Research, Malta)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8933-4.ch007

Abstract

This chapter, which expands on a previous publication, presents a critique of actor-network theory as a sociomaterial concept. Furthermore, the author problematizes the relative under-application of this “sensibility” in education research, while simultaneously exploring its contribution as an analytical framework through its central concepts of “actor-network,” “symmetry,” “translation,” and their constituents. This chapter zooms on the concepts of networks and power relations. The author questions the prevalent notion of the “network” metaphor promulgated by globalization discourses, setting it up against the network conception in actor-network theory, where the main principle is multiplicity. Actor-network theory is analyzed as a theory of the mechanics of power, concerning itself with the setting up of hegemony. This chapter is especially targeted for researchers of education reform who are as yet unfamiliar with the concepts of Actor-Network Theory and somewhat wary of the validity of sociomaterialism in the analysis of education issues.
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A Critical Review Of Actor-Network Theory (Ant) And Its Use In Education Research

Actor Network Theory (ANT) is deemed to be one of the more contentious methodologies in the social sciences, mainly because of its analytical realism, which “treads on a set of ethical, epistemological and ontological toes” (Law, 1992, p. 3), through its conception of general symmetry which gives equal and undivided attention to human and non-human ‘actors’. Law (2007, p. 2) describes ANT as “a disparate family of material-semiotic tools, sensibilities and methods of analysis”. I analyze the diverse characterizations of ANT as expounded by different thinkers while considering the possible reasons behind the relative under-application of ANT in education studies. While admitting that writing about ANT is extremely difficult due to its messy, fluid, disorderly, dynamic, chaotic and ambivalent nature, it is the very ‘messiness’, ‘fluidity’, and ‘chaos’ of this ‘sensibility’ that offers invaluable insights to researchers in the education arena (Mifsud, 2014). I sketch possible ways in which ANT can contribute to ‘methodological cleansing’ in the exploration of networks. Besides providing a critical literature review of the ANT concept, I explore its contribution as an analytical framework in education studies, in particular the exploration of networks and power relations, through its central concepts of ‘actor-network’, ‘symmetry’, ‘translation’, and their constituents.

Two concepts this paper gives prominence to are networks and power relations. In light of the way in which the ‘network’ metaphor has invaded social order, becoming a common conceptual horizon for contemplating about the ontological ‘structure’ of the construction of reality, I challenge this conception of networks propagated by globalization discourses, contrasting it in turn with the network conception in ANT, where the main premise is multiplicity, the enactment of multiple, simultaneous ontologies, as outlined by Law (2004), Mol (2002), and Moser (2008). ANT may be regarded as a theory of the mechanics of power, concerning itself with the stabilization and reproduction of some interactions over others; the construction and maintenance of network centres and peripheries; and the establishment of hegemony. I explore how Law’s (1991, p. 18) suggestion that “power, whatever form it may take, is recursively woven into the intricate dance that unites the social and the technical” has been received by both ANT critics and proponents.

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