CSE268D: Social Aspects of Technology and Science
Notes for the Sixth Meeting
5. Actor-Network Theory (continued)
        (This continues discussion from the notes for the fifth meeting.)

An important achievement of actor-network theory is that technological and social determinism are impossible if you use its method and language correctly. Of course, ANT has been much criticized, but (in my opinion) much of the criticism has been from people who either didn't understand it, or who rejected it for failure to conform with their own pre-exisiting paradigm. The most valid criticisms should come from within this new paradigm. One criticism is that ANT dehumanizes humans by treating them equally with non-humans; there is a brave new world coming our way that involves more and more interaction with machines, to the point of our becoming cyborgs, but (they say) we should resist it rather than celebrate it. Another criticism is that ANT fails to provide explanations for the dynamic restructuring of networks (this criticism is false, in my view). It is also said that ANT fails to take account of the effects that technology can have on those who are not part of the network that produces it, and that it therefore fails to support value judgements on the desirability or undesirability of such effects. ANT is also criticized for its disinclination (or inability) to make contributions to debates about policy for technology and science. Some other criticisms can be found in How things (actor-net)work: Classification, magic and the ubiquity of standards by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star.

Another criticism, which applies to most work in the sociology of technology and science (abbreviated STS) is that it destroys the credability of science, by leaving no place for the objective truth that science (allegedly) uncovers. Of course, sociologists deliberately avoid making commitments of this kind. The resulting discussions between (some) scientists and STS has been called "the Science Wars"! ANT is part of an area of STS that is often called constructivist, because it focuses on how social systems get constructed by their participants. The developers of ANT (Latour and Callon) have recently declared that ANT is over, but of course it's too late now to stop others from using, criticizing, and modifying their ideas.

A name for the general method of looking for what supports a technical or scientific project, instead of telling a heroic tale, is called infrastructural inversion (this term is due to Geoff Bowker). Its converse, which is burying the infrastructure, I call infrastructural submersion. The work of lab technicians, secretaries, nurses, janitors, computer system administrators, etc. is very often subjected to infrastructural submersion, with the effect of creating a very misleading picture of the network involved.

Leigh Star has defined boundary objects to be data objects or collections that are used in more than one way by different social groups, and that therefore provide an interface for those groups, translating across their differences. One reason that this idea is important is that it provides a model of cooperation that does not require consensus. The notion of translation used here comes from ANT. Boundary objects should be a very useful concept in computer science, with applications for example to many areas of design.

6. Case Studies and Applications

We discussed three papers which applied the concepts that we have been studying in various ways:

  1. In Database Metatheory: Asking the Big Queries, Christos Papadimitriou (a UCSD CSE faculty member until just this year, who is now at Berkeley) applies Kuhn and falsifiability to computer science, especially database theory. His main claim is that theoretical CS is now in a crisis. Although this is certainly true in some sense, due to the phenomenal growth and fragmentation of computer science today, it is not true in Kuhn's more technical sense.
  2. In Traduction / Trahison - Notes on ANT, John Law (Univeristy of Lancaster, UK) discusses four case studies which apply ANT in various ways to various situations. His comparative discussion is just as interesting as the case studies themselves, and the paper is well written. The first case study concerns technology transfer, a subject on which much has been written; ANT sheds an interesting light on it, since everything gets "translated" during the "transfer" in this case.
  3. In How things (actor-net)work: Classification, magic and the ubiquity of standards, Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star (University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana) give a challenging, difficult but (I think) most interesting discussion of classifications and standards, showing how emphasizing them within ANT gives it wider scope to address political issues, by making infrastructure non-transparent. You can get some help with the actor-network theory from the notes for the fifth meeting, and the paper by Law. The case study in this paper concerns the "NIC", Nursing Intervention Classification, part of the struggle of contemporary nurses to fit better into a healthcare environment dominated by HMOs with their heavy emphasis on accountancy. There is an important information technology dimension to this, due to the domination of modern healthcare by database systems that are based on classifcation systems.

      (This discussion continues in the notes for the seventh meeting.)

To CSE 268D homepage
Maintained by Joseph Goguen
Last modified 5 November 1998