Actor-Network Theory is neither a network nor a theory. Discuss.

Saturday Night Live (1991) NBC, 12 October

Published by Aileen Ireland

In a recent postgraduate research seminar in the Faculty, we explored the ways in which Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is a particularly useful way to explore the mobilization of knowledge in medical education practice.  Since it was first developed by Michel Callon, Bruno Latour and John Law in the 1980s and ‘90s, ANT has evolved into a widely diverse set of diasporic practices that provide a way of looking at the sociomaterial relations that occur in everyday practices – the ways in which the human things interact with the material things, to enact the social.


Image: “Artic Daisy” courtesy of Fiona Paton, reproduced under the Creative Commons License

While this might sound at first as though ANT might perform in the same way as any other methodological framework, its rather unfortunate label produces much contestation and debate.  The first thing we learn about ANT is that it is not a theory.  And that it challenges the traditional understanding of a network.  Those responsible for its development refuse to call ANT a ‘theory’, denying that it is a rigid set of rules or a blueprint on which to build a framework of interpretations.  Instead, ANT can be understood as a “diverse domain of conceptual and empirical work that explores how the people, objects, practices and ideas come to be organized in particular ways” (Edwards 2012, p. 27).  It does this by allowing us to unpick the ways in which people (humans) and materials (artefacts) come together and intermingle and connect with each other and other ‘things’ in ways that create networks of agency.

In an attempt to trace these connections, ANT analyses reveal the things that are commonly taken for granted or hidden in any particular assemblage.  All of the ‘things’ that have influence or that are capable of enacting some sort of agency within a given assemblage are considered – experience, memories, technology, intentions, disease, medication, checklists, processes – these are constantly connecting and forming associations that can expand across distances and time, sustaining durable links.  Alternatively, these associations can disconnect and dissolve, losing their agency and durability as other actors become more influential within the network.  As such, the notion of the ‘network’ allows us to see into the ‘black box’ to disentangle all of the associations that normally remain hidden and taken for granted.

Image: “Hanging Out” courtesy of Fiona Paton, reproduced with permission under the Creative Commons License.

ANT is an approach that enables us to trace the ways in which all of these things come together, how they interact, and how they become influential.  ANT analyses do not take for granted those things that shape many of our understandings of what is going on in the black box of simulation in medical education; instead, it allows us to follow the actors within the assemblage and seeks to explore the phenomenon as a form of “heterogeneous engineering” (Law 2011) to open up and reveal the hidden practices.  ANT avoids the binary oppositions that arise in the foundational distinctions between the social and the natural and the material and the cultural. It denies the preoccupation with the human, eradicating the rigid separation between material and immaterial to disentangle the assumptions that work to “authorise, control, compel and measure practices and knowledge” (Fenwick et al. 2011, p. 109).

As such, ANT is not ‘applied’ as you would a theoretical model, but instead, it has been described as a set of sensibilities or intellectual tools that provide a way to draw nearer to a phenomenon (Law 2007).  ANT directs us to follow all of the things, not just the humans, but also the parts that make up the non-human to disentangle the assemblages that enact the practice of mobilizing knowledge.

One particular aspect of ANT that is particularly helpful in my own research is the notion of symmetry.  ANT analysis assumes that humans are not prioritised over non-humans:  the idea that everyday things and parts of things, and even invisible things, are assumed to be capable of enacting some sort of influence within the network.  My research is concerned with the ways in which medical practice knowledge is mobilized in simulated clinical spaces; spaces that provide replications of the human and the non-human things that make up clinical practice.  Here, this idea of symmetry is particularly useful because the boundaries between the human and the non-human are already obscured.  It is difficult to decipher where the human ends and the non-human begins.

“ANT does not privilege human consciousness or intention. Both the animate and inanimate are treated as materially equal.” (Edwards 2012, p.27).

ANT offers a multifaceted approach to disentangling the network where it is important not to place the human at the centre of knowledge production.  This is particularly appealing to me in my own research because it allows me to think about how the simulated human patient influences the professional practice of teaching.  It allows me to see the simulated learning space as a hybrid of the human and non-human, not only encompassing the human and technology, but also the other elements that link and form assemblages to enact and mobilize learning.  In a world in which the human is increasingly entangled with the ‘more-than-human’, ANT is a particularly appropriate guide to help negotiate these complex and dynamic spaces without prioritising the influence that the human has over the non-human.

About the author

aileen-irelandAileen is a PhD researcher in Education within the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Stirling and a member of the Faculty’s Education Studies research group. Her research explores the use of high-fidelity simulated human patients in medical education, and her thesis is focused on nursing education practice as an example. She is particularly interested in the sociomateriality of using simulation technology to teach people to care in the real world, and her research is guided by Actor-Network Theory, posthumanism and postcolonial critical thought.  You can read more about her work here.


Edwards, R. (2012) Translating the Prescribed into the Enacted Curriculum. In:  Fenwick, T. and Edwards, R. (eds) Researching Education Through Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 23–39.

Fenwick, T., Edwards, R. and Sawchuck, P. (2011) Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial. London: Routledge.

Law, J. (2007) Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics. Version of 25th April 2007, available at:

Law, J. (2011) Heterogeneous Engineering and Tinkering. Version of 14th November 2011, available at: