Actor-network ‘theory’ can be traced back to Bruno Latour’s contention that what is deemed ‘modern’ leans on an artificial division between a social and a natural realm of reality (Latour, 1991). However, reality is rather composed of heterogeneous assemblage of elements of diverse natures that are at the intersection of both realms. As such, ‘the modern’ reproduces itself as a mechanism that grants reality claims to its objects based on the very divisions it itself creates –nature/culture, human/non-human, natural/artifact etc. (‘le Grand Partage’). It thus refers to an objectification process that re-organizes or assembles the ‘real’ via its own categories. This objectification process, instead of defining the real as an entanglement of heterogeneous forces both natural and cultural, creates a black box that reproduces ‘the real’ under its own self-referential image. Nevertheless, a close inspection on the assemblage itself would reveal the fact that there is no such a thing as a pure social or natural domain. Rather, both realms are entangled in intricate relationalities. Actor-Network can thus be comprehended as a field of study that aspires to attain these relationalities without postulating an underlining agential force (‘the social’) or fixed substance. The question is rather how a seemingly stable substance is sustained via both human and non-human (naturecultural to use Haraway’s term) supports that grant its fixity in time.
In Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, Latour concedes that the social cannot be used as a category to explain the reality, rather it requires to be explained (Latour, 2005). He thus defines actor-network theory as the ‘sociology of translation’ (p. 9) in that it doesn’t resort to pre-existing concepts and categories to define an already constituted ‘social realm. Rather, it is related to the constitution of which is ‘not yet’ there (p. 12), hence emergent through transformations in action. As such, a translation is “a connection that transports transformations” (p. 108) that needs to be tracked and followed and such translations in action are moved by actants of different natures including humans, non-humans, technology, ecology, discourses etc. As such, it is rather a material semiotics that reveals itself as a method –more than a theory- (Law, 2015) to study how communities are constituted around assemblages of both human and non-human, material and semiotic components.
Therefore, actor-network accounts aspire to come up with symmetrical accounts (that do not privilege human actants and their agency) of reality that orient towards describing how certain things are assembled in certain ways via following the actors that make a difference in action.