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Me, My PhD and my grumbles about Actor Network Theory

Published in Research Students by Anna Beck on January 11, 2013

Me, My PhD and my grumbles about Actor Network Theory

My name is Anna Beck and I am a second year PhD student in the School of Education at the University of Glasgow. I am currently conducting research in the area of education policy, and my research interests include: educational reform, teacher resistance, the role of international comparative data in education policy, teacher professionalism and teacher resistance to change.

As a newly added co-author of this website, I plan to update you on my developments in applying social theory to my doctoral research. These posts will probably take the form of me grumbling about some abstract element of Actor Network Theory, but I hope that there will be some success stories too! I would also like to encourage other PhD students to use this website to read about the application of social theory, to talk about their research, and to share their experiences of applying social theory to their own research. Coming from a Psychology background, I have to admit that one of the things that has baffled me the most so far in my PhD is the application of Social Theory to research methods and analysis, and I know many other students who feel the same!

For my PhD, I am researching the implementation of a recent Scottish teacher education policy, ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’ (also known as the ‘Donaldson Report’) in ‘real time’, as the implementation process is ongoing. The report’s recommendations are extremely wide ranging and some are considered to be complex and somewhat radical. I am hoping to unearth some of the operational and political processes involved in their implementation and the key actors and forces which may act to drive or inhibit Scotland’s capacity for change. I am also interested in the idea of ‘re-imagining’ teacher professionalism and what lies behind resistance to neo-liberal policy. One big question that I have is, how do we bring about change in an education system that is steeped in tradition, culture and history?

At the moment, I am trying to map out the journey of policy text to practice. What is it that happens in the stages between, and how does the philosophy of ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’ change as it travels through space and time? To do this, I am taking an Actor Network Theory (ANT) approach.  I find ANT incredibly difficult to explain, and I have read time and time again that to attempt to define it runs the risk of domesticating it. However, I will attempt here to very briefly outline how I plan to use it in my research.

A key assumption of ANT is that humans and non-humans are the same. Every day ‘things’ are seen as being able to exert force, join together, develop and change each other. As they ‘assemble’ together with other actors, they form ‘networks’ which travel over time and space and become more or less durable. The Donaldson Report could be considered as a ‘network’, made up of ‘things’ which are constantly shifting, its durability fluctuating throughout its implementation. These ‘things’ include people, teacher organisations, policy texts, culture, history, economics, teacher associations, ideologies, beliefs, dispositions, external forces and global pressures, to name but a few. An ANT approach allows for the consideration of these ‘things’ as powerful actors, and it can be employed to map the dynamic and temporal social, material and conceptual relations between them.

By employing ANT during the analysis stage, I will hopefully be able to identify how these actors are attracted into or excluded from networks, which linkages work between actors, and how connections are strengthened and weakened during policy implementation, i.e. what are the forces at play and how do they operate. Or at least that is the plan anyway!

Understanding how to actually apply ANT during data analysis of interview transcripts is proving to be slightly tricky… Its limited use in educational research means that there are not many examples for me to draw on! So it may be a bit of trial and error process…. probably involving me drawing massive complex maps on big sheets of paper… I’ll keep you posted.


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About the author /


Anna is a final year PhD student in the School of Education, University of Glasgow. Her main research interests centre on educational change and policy making/implementation. With a background in Psychology, she is particularly interested in the way in which teachers shape and engage with educational change.


  1. Avatar
    Bob Davis

    Hi Anna

    Very much enjoyed your post.

    You might be interested in this article, which discusses ANT in relation to Education research and policy.

    best wishes


    Donald Gray, Archie Graham, Yvonne Dewhurst, Gillian Kirkpatrick, Lindsay MacDougall, Sandra Nicol & Graeme Nixon (2009): Scallops, schools and scholars: reflections on the emergence of a research‐oriented learning project, Journal of Education for Teaching: International research and pedagogy, 35:4, 425-440

  2. Avatar
    Ailsa Haxell (@ai1sa)

    Sounds like a great project. I found studying change as it happens challenging (the actors work in different chronologies! WTimelines meant little if they did not know about what was happening for others or elsewhere….). Mine wasn’t about educational policy though, but Radhika Gorur has a thesis in this area. doi 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2009.00612.x

  3. Avatar
    Anna Beck

    Hi Bob and Ailsa,

    Thank you for your positive comments and suggestions – the article/thesis you suggested were really helpful!


  4. Avatar
    Thomas Graven

    Hi Anna.

    Thanx for an interesting blog on actor-netowork-theory and educational politics. In my phd-project on the management of health care processes I also draw om ANT but I’m far from being an ANT expert. So if you hear about a phd-course on ANT somewhere in the UK (or elsewhere in Erurope) please let me know.

    Kind regards

    Thomas Graven
    University of Aarhus – Denmark
    Department of Business Communication

  5. Avatar

    I’m finding the same. At the moment I am research the use of satellite technologies in British agriculture and the non-human+human aspect of ANT is advantageous. There is a chapter in The Sociology of Associations that I found helpful, Latour’s conversation with a student. However, in general I am finding the ANT and critical realism debate very helpful, thinking more about causality rather that “just” relationally. (“Just” being Latour’s favourite word it seems)

    Good luck with your research!

  6. Avatar
    Jannik Wagner


    I really enjoyed your blog too. I’m currently in the process of writing a masters dissertation focussing on evaluating the consequences of visitation to urban underground leisurescapes. Having read a plethora of papers relating to the implementation of ANT in a tourism context if have a very sound understanding of the advantages. However, I feel it proves virtualy impossible to find praktical hands on advice on how to conduct the actual mapping.

    Do you have any practical advice on the process of mapping ?

    Kindest Regards !

  7. Avatar

    insightful- am trying to figure out a theoretical framework for media policy thesis

  8. Avatar

    I really appreciated your blog and there is a lot of interesting information. You said you’re dealing with teacher resistance to change, could you tell me wich authors are you working with please?

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    Mary Hamilton

    Dear Anna, I’ve published a few things about educational policy using ANT including these:

    Hamilton, Mary. “Putting words in their mouths: The alignment of identities with system goals through the use of individual learning plans.” British Educational Research Journal 35.2 (2009): 221-242.

    Hamilton, M. (2011). Unruly practices: what a sociology of translations can offer to educational policy analysis. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43(s1), 55-75.

    I also highly recommend other writing by Radhika Gorur and Tara Fenwick
    Hope some of these might be useful to you!

  10. Avatar
    Ross MacGill

    Hi Anna,

    I am currently writing up my PhD in Glasgow, and I have deployed the ANT toolset to examine the Chernobyl disaster.

    It may be worthwhile thinking about conceptualising this report at the centre of your network, and account for the material impacts its agency has produced – by that I mean the non-human of the text itself. This would allow for a two stage account; the mapping of its ‘network’ in all its heterogeneity, as-well-as a section which analyses the conceptual and material construction of the report.

    I find that ANT is most useful when a clearly defined actor is the epicentre of the network, that is, the phenomena attracting the constellated actors/actants around it.

    Good luck

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