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Reading theory: My nervous encounters with Actor Network Theory

Published in Research Students by Catriona Oates on January 20, 2014

(c) jiunn kang too

(c) jiunn kang too

This week’s Edutalk broadcast was about my friend Anna Beck’s study of the Teaching Scotland’s Future report as policy implementation in real time.  It’s fascinating work; challenging too – a bit like trying to hit a moving target I imagine, but I know I won’t be alone in looking forward to the happy day when Anna can share her full findings (and that’s not too far away, by the end of this year I think).

Anna has been using Actor-Network Theory (ANT) as the  theoretical framework for her study, and the timing of the radio show this week has spurred me into action to try to sort out, or at least articulate my own understandings of this. ANT is sometimes also referred to as a socio-material approach (I don’t think these terms are inter-changeable), and it has several influential champions in Stirling, notably Professors Tara Fenwick and Richard Edwards, both of whom have gained international recognition for their work and contribution to this domain, so unsurprisingly, many of my PhD colleagues are using this approach in their research, and as a result we’re all exposed to it and some are considering it, among others as a possible framework for our work.

Ontologically, ANT doesn’t accept that there is a fixed external reality rather that there are multiple realities, made up of ‘actants’ in different states of flux or change as they act upon each other in complex and dynamic networks.

ANT treats networks as contested and precarious multiplicities which order practice, bodies and identities through complex enactments (Fenwick 2010, p 119).

The actants in the network can be human or non-human, e.g. objects, technologies, policy, documents, and the ANT approach insistently refuses to make a distinction between these two categories. This is the concept of ‘symmetry’ in ANT terms.  In the paper cited above Tara Fenwick give useful explanations of the most prevalent concepts used in ANT.

Translation is another of the concepts or occurrences in the complex networks ANT describes. This occurs when actants of the network encounter each other and as a result change occurs – both to them and to the configuration of the network.

‘Translation refers to the micro-negotiations among elements that work to shape or change them, and link them into extended chains of interconnected activity’ (Fenwick 2010, p121).

Enrolment and mobilization are processes with draw in or shut out elements to the network.

‘The processes of enrolment and mobilization work to include and exclude from the chains, and direct this activity such that the network is performed into existence’ (Fenwick 2010, p121).

Stabilisation seems to happen when the network ‘stabilises’ and starts to act of itself: quoting Tara again:

‘[s]tabilization is what happens when the network appears to be complete and durable and to exercise force while concealing all the dynamic translations that have created it and continue to maintain it’ (Fenwick 2010, p121).

The paper I’ve cited here discusses standards in education when analysed using ANT. It’s a really helpful paper as an introduction to ANT. It appealed to me because it was concerned with educational standards, and I was interested to see how I might understand them in an ANT way. The fascinating thing is that standards are usually understood as ‘immutable’ or in ANT terms ‘immutable mobiles’ (Law, 2003; in Fenwick 2010, p123). Immutable mobiles are actants which have

stabilised as a self-contained and self –evident object. The roiling messy, network(s) of invention, resistance and negotiations that produced the list [of standards] are rendered invisible (Fenwick 2010, p123).

What the paper reveals however is unsurprisingly a very complex picture: standards, instead of being unitary and stable, or ‘representational’ – describing ‘pre-existing realities of teaching’ (Fenwick 2010), the socio-material analysis she quotes (Mulcahy 2007) focuses on a ‘performative approach which treats standards as relationally enacted in various everyday practices’ (Fenwick 2010, p129). Not only does an ANT analysis acknowledge the messiness of the process which brought the standards into being, it also makes space for the ‘healthy fissures, tunnels, folds and unmapped spaces’ (Fenwick 2010 p129) generated by differences in enactments of the standards within the network. These spaces might not be exposed with another theoretical analysis, and ANT proponents would argue that this is where the most interesting translations and enactments take place.

A consideration of the new professional standards in Scotland would be an interesting ANT study. How immutable are they in practice? How do educators translate them? What other actants are at work in the networks they are working within?  How representational and performative are they? What is happening in the spaces in-between the nodes of the network? How is power or force exercised in this network?

I think that’s someone else’s PhD. Coming up next –  Michel Callon and the scallop fishermen, but for now I’ll introduce you to the mightily impressive Tara Fenwick, in case you haven’t already come across her, via this short interview:

Fenwick, T. J.  2010: (un)Doing standards in education with actor-network theory. Journal of Education Policy 25:2 117-133

Mulcahy, D, 2007 (Re)working relations of strategy and spatiality in education. Studies in Continuing Education 29:2 143-162 – vimeo code for Tara’s interview

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About the author /


Catriona is an educator who has worked in primary, secondary and tertiary sectors in Scotland. She is currently studying for a PhD at Stirling University in teacher professional learning with a specific interest in professional learning communities. At the moment she is working with different leadership organisations i.e. SELMAS ( The Scottish Education, Leadership, Management and Administration Society) and the Strategic Leadership Development Programme. She has a keen, but very amateurish interest in using technology and blogs at Cat's Eyes.


  1. Avatar

    Catriona, this is a good summary of ANT.

    When I was doing my PhD I looked at ANT briefly – as my supervisor had used it in her research – but I then decided for a different framework.

    My knowledge of ANT is not that great, but I was wondering if (or how) does ANT accounts for power tensions/ relationships, for instance, as that seems to me to be of paramount importance when developing and implementing standards.

    Is that the topic of your research too. Would love to know what you’re researching…I’m nosey like this 😛

  2. Avatar

    Hi Cristina and thanks for leaving a comment. To start with your easy questions: My PhD study isn’t about educational standards. I’m looking at teacher learning in practice, in particular the specific process of Learning Rounds which is a form of observational teacher learning. The new professional standards are obviously relevant to this as they invite teachers to take ownership of their own professional learning and evidence what they have done.
    I’m not planning to use ANT in my PhD study but I think I would quite like to use it at some point, maybe in a future study if I ever get that far! Some of the things that appeal to me in ANT are: making sense of the idea that social and material things connect and interact within one network and that because of this the network is in a constant state of flux, regardless of how individuals choose to interpret it. I also quite like they way the hidden folds or spaces in-between the nodes of the network can be fore-grounded. I’m quite interested in looking at objects or devices like education standards or policies as “immutable mobiles.” I think that for teachers, these are often seen as something with more power than them, but the concept of “symmetry” in an ANT analysis would perhaps allow a different understanding of this. My understandings of ANT are very rudimentary though – I hope that someone like Anna Beck, who is immersed in ANT for her study, can bring some knowledge and experience to this discussion!
    To attempt an answer to your harder question, I’d really like someone else to chip in, but I think power can be observed or exercised through representation by actors in the network; Michel Callon’s classic study of translations (in Law, 1986) is a really good exploration of this – the many can often been seen to represent the few, regardless of whether they are social or natural actors in the network, and not always with positive effects! It’s a good read – I’d recommend it and am working myself up to a blogpost about it. Check out Cats Eyes ( in a few days if you’re keen!
    Thanks again, Catriona

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