The concept of network is a widespread term in contemporary social theory as well as other fields. It is commonly invoked in public imaginaries of the contemporary ‘digital age’. As such it is used, sometimes interchangeably, in both colloquial and analytic ways. Dictionaries define the present day use of the term as referring to complex systems of interlinked entities. It could be argued that the prevalence of the term, as well as a modern sense of ‘being networked’ are closely related to the historical development of electricity networks (Hughes 1983, Nye 1990), which connected citizens or households in a wider infrastructure. This enabled new ways of life while simultaneously creating dependencies on being networked, a situation which has intensified in more privileged parts of the world today.
In Actor-Network theory, the term network is a critique of the idea of a prefixed social order of things e.g. of systems, structures, hierarchies, discourses imagined to fix, frame, or define the lives or ideas of (human) actors. The concept emphasizes two things assumed to affect all things. First, the importance of connections in the becoming of all things, big and small. Paraphrasing Latour (1988) one might say that the concept of network expresses the idea that anything can potentially be linked to anything else, (while in practice, as well as analytically, it might not be). And second, the term highlights the continuous work it takes to sustain (or not to sustain) connections. To emphasize that the suffix ‘work’ is just as important as the prefix ‘net’ in the ANT version of the term, Latour (2005) has suggested work-nets, although this formulation has gained little traction in social theory.
In approaches emerging under the banner After ANT (Law and Hassard 1999), the concept of ‘network’ is deemed a troublesome analytic, because it tracks too closely to more colloquially understood terms. For example, physical infrastructures such as ‘the internet’ or terms like ‘networking; ’the making of new social connections between people or ‘social network’. Such terms seem to freeze the quality and/or content of connections. Within After ANT, the term refers rather to a situation where all connections are assumed to be becoming and transforming. Another problematic with the term is that it can be misread binarily (actor vs. network), so that one might seem able to focus either on the ‘nodes’ or the ‘relations’. But for ANT and After, actor and network are two sides of the same coin. This has led to discussions about whether ‘Rhizome’ might be a better term than ‘network’ because it also points to the (possible) winding proliferation of connections, without there necessarily being a center or centrifugal point (Jensen forthcoming). On the other hand, Czarniawska (2004) has developed the idea of Action-Nets to highlight that it is not necessarily actors, but rather actions, which are ethnographically recognizable as that which gets connected in nets across time and space.
In any case, to theses thinkers, ‘network’ is not a strong ontological term: a network does not have any specific form, capacity or characteristics, except for a potential to grow or die as a kind of relational becoming. It is a weak, mostly empty, open-ended, but nevertheless consequential methodological term signifying that everything we identify as an actor, action or entity, could also be considered a gathering of sorts. Thus, one could say that what is immanent to the term itself is that it is always on the brink of becoming something other than itself. Hence, we cannot ignore those colloquial notions of the network that extend its use. In addition this points out the analysts’ responsibility in cutting the network: leaving out ‘stuff’ within any analysis that might otherwise be related, as well as recognizing all those practical or worldly circumstances at work in making a particular network what it is. An account of a network, is thus also always to be considered as an effect; it itself a potential addition, made from relating to a particular network, rather than a stand-alone representation.
Author: Christopher Gad
Czarniawska, Barbara (2004) “On Time, Space, and Action Nets.” Organization 11 (6): 773–91.
Hughes, Thomas (1983) Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Jensen, Casper Bruun (forthcoming) “Is actant-rhizome ontology a more appropriate term for ANT?”
Latour, Bruno. 1988. The Pasteurization of France (Part One: “War and Peace of Microbes”; Part Two: ’Irreductions’). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Law, John, and John Hassard. 1999. Actor Network Theory and After. Sociological Review Monographs. Oxford: Blackwell.
Nye, David (1990) Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940, , Cambridge: MIT Press.