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