Actor Network Theory (ANT)

  • Kelly D. WiltshireEmail author
Living reference work entry


Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is a framework for the study of sociology that emerged in the early 1980s with the work of Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and John Law in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). Bruno Latour continued to develop ANT throughout the 1990s, where its application moved beyond the boundaries of STS and made its way into other disciplines outside sociology. The application of ANT within the archaeological discipline has predominantly occurred through the development of symmetrical archaeology, which seeks to apply the ANT concept of symmetry in order to develop more complex interpretations within the archaeological discipline. Beyond this, the application of ANT by archaeologists exists within a number of isolated case studies in the subfields of maritime archaeology aviation archaeology, and ethnographies of archaeological practice.


ANT primarily emerged as a result of sociologies of scientific practice that developed in the early 1980s within the field of STS. These studies use participant observation to produce detailed ethnographic descriptions of scientific “data” and “fact” production, concluding scientific knowledge to be a socially constructed product of both laboratory cultural practices and the social connections that exist between scientists (Harman 2007:43). Despite being an early proponent in the social construction of scientific knowledge, sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour was also the first to abandon social construction, claiming it to be the key weakness of early sociologies of science (Van Rebrouck and Jacobs 2006:36–37). Specifically, Latour (2005:7) argues there is an assumption within traditional sociology that the social is a distinct micro-context of reality separate from economic and/or political contexts. Latour maintains the entire notion of contexts, particularly social contexts, creates an unnecessary dichotomy that restricts ethnographic descriptions of knowledge production to social contexts and socially derived outcomes. In response to this, Latour took inspiration from French philosophers Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s (1980) assemblage theory in order to reconceptualize or “reassemble” (cf. Latour 2005) the nature of social contexts. In doing so, Latour (1999, 2005) developed ANT as an inductive method of ethnographic description to describe the production of knowledge outside a given context.

Despite the inclusion of the word “theory,” ANT is a method of inquiry rather than a theory (Latour 1999:19). As John Law (2009:142) argues, “it is a toolkit for telling interesting stories…about how relations assemble.” In other words, ANT is used as a method to describe the relationships or connections that comprise a particular network or assemblage; however, to fully comprehend ANT as a method, it needs to be described in relation to the specific case study in which it is being applied (see Latour 2005:141–156). In spite of this, ANT does emphasize the use of key concepts including symmetry, translation, and black boxing. These key concepts have been adopted by proponents of symmetrical archaeology and/or applied within a number isolated case studies in the subfields of maritime archaeology, aviation archaeology, and ethnographies of archaeological practice.

Key Issues/Current Debates/Future Directions/Examples

Within the archaeological discipline, the most predominant application of ANT has occurred through the development of symmetrical archaeology, which applies the ANT concept of symmetry in order to draw attention to the often marginalized or silenced agency of nonhumans. Latour (1999:190) argues the agency of nonhumans has resided in a “blind spot” in society, with their agency ignored socially, politically, and philosophically despite the fact humans depend on and care for nonhumans in our everyday lives; however, ANT maintains nonhumans are not passive, inert, or inanimate but are actors with the capacity to act alongside human actors (Harman 2007; Hodder 2012; Olsen et al. 2012). Thus, the concept of symmetry seeks to promote the equal agency of human and nonhuman actors in order to create a “flat ontology,” which treats all humans and nonhumans democratically.

In applying this concept, symmetrical archaeology argues the archaeological discipline produces anthropocentric histories that emphasize the “Indian [sic] behind the artefact” (Braidwood 1958:734) but has failed to recognize the agency of nonhumans or things. In essence, things have been forgotten. For example, key practitioner of symmetrical archaeology Bjørnar Olsen (2007:580; 582) believes the archaeological discipline and the histories it produces have kept things at arm’s length:

(what) we see is basically a prolonged asymmetry, in which things continue to be treated as secondary or epiphenomenal to some cultural or social ‘first instance’…[where] the material inhabitants were plastic and receptive, sitting in silence waiting to be embodied with cultural significance.

Alternatively, symmetrical archaeology can offer a distinct and reconceptualized focus on things, where the metaphor of an assemblage or network is used to better understand the agency of things. For example, things make a difference, not just because of their agency and ability act but because of the reciprocal mutually constitutive connection that exists between human and nonhuman actors as part of an assemblage or network (Latour 2005). In other words, agency is possessed in connections between actors rather than in actors themselves, with agency relative to and distributed via the assemblage within which they are situated (Lucas 2012:162). Therefore, proponents of symmetrical archaeology argue being sensitive to the connections that exist between humans and nonhumans can result in far more complex archaeological interpretations (Olsen et al. 2012:14).

Ian Hodder’s (2012) Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things also draws upon the metaphor of an assemblage to explore the spatial and temporal relationships between humans and nonhumans. In doing so, Hodder (2012:91–94) initially explores the concept of ANT but soon rejects it on the basis of its symmetry and instead favors the concept of entanglement to convey the dependence that exists between human and nonhumans. Consequently, the concept symmetry and the creation of a “flat ontology” are the key criticisms of ANT. Critics claim this democratic approach does not account for or challenge pre-existing systems of asymmetrical power and authority or inequality (Amsterdamska 1990; Restivo 2005; Whittle and Spicer 2008). Utilizing ANT has the potential to obscure systems that marginalize particular groups or individuals, or their agency, in resisting this marginalization. Despite this, ANT understands hegemonic systems of power and authority as a product or effect of pre-existing assemblages and not a predetermined reality (Latour 2005:64). Therefore, despite not recognizing or challenging pre-existing hegemonic systems of power and authority, ANT can be used to describe the assemblages that create and maintain such systems, which becomes a useful tool in challenging such structures.

Beyond the development of symmetrical archaeology, the application of ANT by archaeologists has existed within a few case studies. In an early example, Whitridge (2004) considers the complex technical assemblage that resulted in stylistic variability in harpoon heads observed archaeologically, which in turn contributed to changes in whaling practices in the North American Artic around 1000 AD. In doing so, Whitridge’s (2004) example is one of the few that demonstrates how ANT can be applied to develop more complex archaeological interpretations. Accordingly, many of the other archaeological case studies that exist under the ANT umbrella seek to describe the archaeological practice and/or the production of knowledge, aligning these case studies with the field of sociologies of scientific practice from which ANT emerged. In another early example, Jones’ (2002) Archaeological Theory and Scientific Practice explicitly draws upon STS and ANT in his analysis of archaeological practice, arguing research questions, hypotheses, techniques, sampling strategies, and scales limit the production of archaeological knowledges. In addition to this, Jones draws upon the ANT concept of symmetry to explore the agency of archaeological traces in influencing the production of archaeological knowledge. Both Yarrow (2003) and Van Rebrouck and Jacobs (2006) apply the ANT concept of symmetry to explore the mutually constitutive nature of the connection between subject and object or archaeologists and archaeology that plays out during archaeological excavation, demonstrating neither archaeologist nor archaeology is self-evident but emerges simultaneously as a result of the connection that develops during archaeological practice. In other words, without the archaeology there can be no archaeologist. More recently, Deal et al. (2015) apply ANT to explore the social and technical actors that comprise and produce knowledge within the emerging field of aviation archaeology, whereas Van Oyen (2015) explores how archaeological understandings of Roman pottery types became a constructed yet an imbedded form of categorization.

Lastly, research by Wiltshire (2017) uses ANT to reconceptualize archaeological practice as an assemblage, in order to describe the heterogeneous actors often marginalized in the production of archaeological knowledges. In doing so, this research moves beyond the ANT concept of symmetry, to include the concept of translation in order to identify and describe how connections between actors assemble, shift, and fell apart over the course of archaeological investigations. Specifically, the concept of translation is a process where one actor transforms another through connections that involve work, negotiation, and resistance between actors (Harman 2007:40–41). When translation has succeeded, one actor has worked upon another to translate it to become part of an assemblage (Latour 1999). Alternatively, when actors are not transformed by other actors, they do not form part of an assemblage. As a result of this process of translation, assemblages are continually being made, remade, shaped, and reshaped and are constantly shifting through the dynamic connections that exist between actors. In other words, assemblages are not static or permanent but are dynamic, and ANT allows for the study of numerous moments of translation by describing how the connections between actors assemble, shift, and fall apart (Latour 2005:132). For Wiltshire (2017), this concept is used to highlight how the agency of the Ngarrindjeri Nation resulted in a process of translation, ultimately influencing the development of the researcher’s role as an archaeologist. In addition to this, successful and unsuccessful instances of translation are also described. Specifically, this research describes how the connection between the Ngarrindjeri Nation and the researcher allowed for the initiation of archaeological investigations, while the nature of this connection including the agency of gender contributed to the conclusion of archaeological investigations.

Following on from the concept of translation, Wiltshire (2017) also applies the concept of black boxing to identify and describe how successful and unsuccessful instances of translation became concealed. Once successful translation occurs, an assemblage appears static, stable, and self-evident, which conceals the heterogeneous actors that comprise it, and focus is directed toward one or few actants (Latour 1999). For example, the discovery of archaeological facts is attributed to the authoritative archaeologist, while other human and nonhuman actors that are part of the assemblage of archaeological practice and contribute to the production of these facts are marginalized and silenced.

Black boxing also allows for particular knowledges and/or practices to become accepted, rather than allowing them to be continually critiqued, refined, and reproduced to reflect the dynamic nature of the assemblage that produced them. In describing the concept of black boxing in relation to archaeological practice, Leighton (2015:68) explains:

Black-boxing refers to the extent to which a scientific knowledge claim needs to be justified and explained within a specific scientific community. For instance, when radiocarbon dating was a new technology, its use was a matter of uncertainty and debate, but today an author writing in an archaeological journal does not need to explicitly convince his or her readers that C14 is an appropriate way to date an archaeological layer. Archaeologists no longer have to explain, justify and prove the concept of radioactive decay every time they want to make use of a C14 date in a paper, and in this sense C14 dating has become a black-boxed ‘matter of fact’ rather than an open problem one needs to think about, pay attention to and justify explicitly.

In applying the concept of black boxing, Wiltshire (2017) describes how successful and unsuccessful instances of translation became concealed, particularly during the production of written texts and reports that obscure emotion actors such as uncertainty and excitement.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologyFlinders UniversityAdelaideAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Jordan Ralph
    • 1
  • Troy Lovata
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologyFlinders UniversityAdelaideAustralia
  2. 2.Honors CollegeThe University of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA