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What is an actor?

Some colleagues and I recently submitted a paper to a conference, and last week I sent in our rebuttals to the reviewers’ comments. Our paper introduces some terms from actor-network theory (ANT) to an audience that isn’t terribly familiar with ANT. I like ANT as a method, not really a theory, for helping sort through really dense, unfamiliar data. For instance, you can use ANT to help you figure out where to focus. If you enter a scenario as an ignorant sponge (as many qualitative methods ask that you do), it can be difficult to figure out what’s important. It’s also impossible to pay attention to everything all the time. ANT can help you find some important actors on which to focus your attention. Actors seems like a familiar term – we know of many in Hollywood, we understand what it means to act even off screen. That’s not what ANT means though. For ANT, actors are something like things that cause change, or things that other actors say are actors. You can probably see why some of our reviewers got a bit confused.

I use ANT in my dissertation to talk about what had to happen for a specific bridge to be built. I couch the study in terms of actors who did work to produce the bridge. I borrow actors from ANT in that I consider non-human actors (e.g. bendable concrete) symmetrical with human actors. Objects and ideas can do work even though they’re not human. They’re identified as important by other actors. For instance, using bendable concrete in the bridge deck required changes in how the sidewalk was connected, how the deck connected to the regular concrete deck on either side. The bendable concrete was acting in that it was creating change. Other actors, such as a construction consultant, identified it as an actor by saying things like, “If we use that bendable concrete, then we can’t use rebar there. We’ll have to use something else.” In that excerpt, he identified bendable concrete as the thing that caused a change. Bendable concrete has some agency. Had we entered the construction project without knowing anything, we’d know from the way the consultant talks about the bendable concrete that it is something important, that determines what other actors may or may not do (e.g. use rebar).

I think our paper does a good job of describing how ANT can help identify the important things in a set of data. When I find out if it got accepted, I’ll blog about the conference itself. I have pretty strong feelings about the conference to which we submitted, and they will either grow stronger or remain in check, depending on the outcome of our submission. Oh, that drama! The intrigue! Stay tuned.

So, what do you think ?

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