Actor Network Theory

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The Actor-Network-Theory (ANT, English Actor-Network Theory ) is a social science school that has developed from the 1980s in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and from there also in other areas of sociology and could establish neighboring disciplines.

The core idea of ​​the actor-network theory is that society or the world is structured like a network and is composed of various elements. This amalgamation of different elements to form more or less coherent actors is seen by the actor-network theory as the central object of investigation in sociology. She identifies the social with associations that can develop between different (heterogeneous) entities.

With this she also combines a critique of classical sociology in the tradition of Émile Durkheim and many of its common concepts such as society , interaction , structure or the distinction between the micro and macro levels . The original methods of actor-network theory are ethnography and semiotics , but over time they have also found application in the field of discourse analysis and historical research.

The authoritative theoretical contributions to actor-network theory were primarily worked out by Michel Callon , John Law and Bruno Latour , often together with other representatives of Science and Technology Studies and representatives of other academic disciplines. While the early work primarily examined the production and functioning of sciences and technologies, the actor-network theory later worked on the basic concepts of sociology and thus also of modern philosophy and tries to see modernity not as a stage of development, but as one to describe equal cultural form among many others.


The actor-network theory was initially developed to research and explain scientific and technical innovations . But it has evolved into a comprehensive sociological theory and research method.

The theory became famous because, unlike most (almost all) social theories, it does not see the social as something that arises between people, but emphasizes the involvement of non-human entities. The method can be described as "material-semiotic". This means that it shows the connections that exist both materially (between things) and semiotic (between concepts). The theory assumes that many connections are both material and semiotic. For example, the interaction space of a university involves students, faculty and their ideas as well as technologies, e.g. B. Chairs, tables, blackboards, laptops and pens. Together they form a single network called “University”.

The ANT seeks to explain how material semiotic networks come together to act as a whole (e.g. the university is both a network and an actor, and for some purposes it acts as a single entity). As a partial aspect of this, the ANT considers explicit strategies that serve to integrate different elements together in a network so that they appear to the outside world as a coherent whole.

According to the ANT, such actor networks are short-lived. They are in a state of constant growth and permanent re-creation. This means that certain relationships have to be repeated, otherwise the network would break up (in our example, the students have to attend courses on a daily basis that have to be offered by the lecturers and the computers have to remain in use, etc.). It is also suggested that networks of relationships are not inherently coherent and may in fact contain conflict (e.g. there may be a tense relationship between students and lecturers or incompatibilities on the computers). In other words, social relationships are always changing and must be carried out permanently.

In the actor-network theory, social, technical and natural objects are not viewed as being explained by society, but as (co) explaining society ; their influence on society is thus considered. The development of science and technology is therefore neither caused solely by natural or technical factors nor solely by social factors.


The actor-network theory has been advanced mainly by the French sociologists Michel Callon and Bruno Latour since the mid-1980s . It has received a lot of attention in the English-speaking world. Further classic contributions to actor-network theory come from John Law and Madeleine Akrich , more recent contributions and others. a. by Annemarie Mol . This school of thought has strongly influenced international science and technology research over the past three decades. Since the mid-1990s, it has also received increasing attention in Germany. It plays an increasingly important role in the theoretical debate about materiality concepts triggered by the material turn . In addition to the affordance theory, it is one of the theoretical foundations of the Collaborative Research Center 933 “Material Text Cultures” at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg .

Topics and terms


In the context of his actor-network theory, Bruno Latour also understands things as acting actors who act together with human actors in network-like contexts of action. A simple example of this is the “human-pistol” actor, which arises from the interaction of the two agents, pistol and human , and cannot be reduced to one of these two. Since Latour the term "actor" seems unnatural for non-humans, he suggests the term actant to denote the respective acting entities.

He differentiates between actor and actant in that actants only become actors when they are figured in a certain way, i. H. have taken shape in the sociological explanation. The same actant can be figured in different ways, for example: “The United States” wants to withdraw from the UN, or “Imperialism” wants that, or “Bush” or “some officers and neoconservatives”. This means that the actant is the not yet figured agent in the sense of a latent potential for action, the actor that figured and named.


A central statement of the actor-network theory reads: It is not subjects or people or persons who act and act in society as sole actors, but always in dependence on other actors or entities. That is why there is talk of actor networks. Pasteur with his (tamed) microbes is the social actor who is celebrated for his historical achievement, for Latour this Pasteur is a network of actors. It seems obvious that the person Pasteur also belongs to this network, but how exactly is an interesting, relatively open question (the subjects or subjectivity do not necessarily have to disappear from networks either).

These actor networks (or actor networks) must be distinguished from the infrastructures commonly referred to as networks such as telephone or power supply networks (or "the Internet"), a difference that Latour often insists on. On the one hand, he clearly differentiates between the two meanings in that actor networks are a way for social scientists to give meaning to technical networks in the narrower sense (but also to other social phenomena). One could recognize in it a distinction between (investigation or representation) method and object, if one wants. To denote the actor networks understood in this way, he suggests the alternative term “worknet” or “action net” instead of network.


The objects that bind, carry and create the social are sometimes referred to as quasi-objects. This term is borrowed from Michel Serres and covers, for example, the role of a ball in a ball game. This is more than a teammate, the players chase after him, he connects them as players and opponents. A quasi-object is an object that weaves the social or the collective.

Symmetry principle

The “principle of symmetry” in particular is often used to explain the peculiarity of the actor-network theory. Accordingly, it is about a symmetrical treatment of human and non-human actors.

However, this principle has led to some misunderstandings and is also understood differently. Bruno Latour was forced to make various corrections, including the relatively last and clear: “ANT is not, I repeat: it is not the assertion of any absurd 'symmetry between humans and non-human beings'. For us, being symmetrical simply means not assuming some false asymmetry a priori between human intentional action and a material world of causal relationships. "

The symmetry principle is therefore a non-asymmetry principle, it corrects a false dualistic ontology of intentional action and causal mechanisms, on the basis of which only the former can become a building block of sociality.


Another important aspect of actor-network theory is the concept of translation (it is also sometimes referred to as the “sociology of translation”). It is borrowed from the work of Michel Serres , who dedicated an entire volume (“Hermes III”) to this concept.

A translation is to be understood as a relation or reference that involves a transformation. A translation operation links elements and facts that are considered incommensurable. It creates a connection between heterogeneous activities or elements. This enables the network to which they belong to be made intelligible and understandable. With the last statement, we take an outside perspective, so to speak, in order to reconstruct (or describe, understand, explain) a network.


Methodologically, the actor-network theory is descriptively oriented. It pursues “heterogeneous human and non-human actors on their way to network formation”; In doing so, she observes and observes controversies and “processes of mutual translation and cooperation”.

One can generally raise the question of whether, contrary to its name, the ANT is not much more of a method than a theory, whereby “method” would fall under a generous definition, in the sense of an approach. Their terms are more like recording devices in order to detect and trace networks in concrete investigations.


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  • Markus Holzinger: Where are the missing practices? Bruno Latour's experimental metaphysics , In: Zeitschrift für Theoretische Soziologie (ZTS), issue 1/2013. Pp. 31-55.
  • Georg Kneer, Markus Schroer, Erhard Schüttpelz (eds.): Bruno Latour's collective. Controversies on the delimitation of the social. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt a. M. 2008, ISBN 978-3-518-29462-8 .
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  • Bruno Latour : On Actor-Network Theory. A few Clarifications in: Soziale Welt 47, 1996, Heft 4, pp. 369–382.
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  • Bruno Latour : modes of existence. An anthropology of the modern. Berlin: Suhrkamp 2014, ISBN 978-3-518-58607-5 .
  • Henning Laux: Sociology in the Age of Composition. Coordinates of an integrative network theory . Weilerswist: Velbrück 2014, ISBN 978-3-942393-57-7 .
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  • John Law , John Hassard (eds.): Actor Network Theory and after. Malden, CA: Blackwell Publishers 1999, ISBN 0-631-21194-2 .
  • Annemarie Mol: The Body Multiple: ontology in medical practice . Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press 2002, ISBN 978-0-8223-2917-6 .
  • Gustav Roßler: The proportion of things in society. Sociality - Cognition - Networks . Bielefeld: Transcript 2016, ISBN 978-3-8376-3297-2 .
  • Gustav Roßler: “On the Actor Network Theory”, in: Lore Knapp (ed.), Literary Networks in the 18th Century. With the translations of two essays by Latour and Sapiro , Bielefeld: Aisthesis 2019, pp. 35–43.
  • Ingo Schulz-Schaeffer: Social theory of technology . Frankfurt am Main: Campus 2000 (pp. 102ff., 128ff., 295ff.), ISBN 978-3593364797 .
  • Ingo Schulz-Schaeffer: "Actor-Network-Theory. On the co-constitution of society, nature and technology", in: Johannes Weyer (Ed.), Social Networks. Concepts and methods of social science network research , 2nd revised and updated edition, Munich a. a .: Oldenbourg Verlag, pp. 277-300.
  • Dierk Spreen : The body in the upgrade culture and the limits of the new techno-conservatism. In: Karin Harrasser , Susanne Roeßinger (eds.): Parahuman. New perspectives on life with technology. Cologne: Böhlau 2016, ISBN 978-3-412-50518-9 , pp. 49-64.
  • Martin Voss, Birgit Peuker (eds.): Is nature disappearing? The actor-network theory in the environmental sociological discussion . Bielefeld: Transcript 2006, ISBN 978-3-89942-528-4 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Bruno Latour: A new sociology for a new society. Frankfurt am Main 2007, pp. 93ff.
  2. cf. Bruno Latour: modes of existence. Eine Anthropologie der Modernen, Berlin 2014, pp. 69–73
  3. ^ Bruno Latour: A new sociology for a new society. Frankfurt am Main 2007, p. 229
  4. Cf. Bruno Latour: On Actor-network-theory. In: social world. 47 (1996).
  5. ^ Bruno Latour: A new sociology for a new society. Frankfurt am Main 2007, p. 131.
  6. ^ Bruno Latour: A new sociology for a new society. Frankfurt am Main 2007, p. 183
  7. Claudia Mareis: Theories of Design as an introduction. Hamburg 2014, p. 150f.
  8. Bruno Latour: On Actor-Network-Theory. In: social world. 47 (1996), p. 374.