Actor-Network Theory

RELATED TERMS: Actant; Actantiality; Actantial model - Greimas; Human Actantiality; Theoretical practice; Ethnomethodology; Latour; Storyworld; Apparatus – Dispositif; Object-oriented ontology

According to Jary and Jary (2000), actor network theory combines post-structuralist insights with detailed empirical studies of scientific practices and technologies, organisations and social processes. It builds on the work of Bruno Latour, John Law and Michel Callon. The focus of actor network theory is on the reality and transformability of networks, as against such notions as institutions and society. Its conception of the social is as a circulatory field of forces beyond the agency-structure debate.

In a footnote in ‘Reassembling the Social’, Bruno Latour (2005, fn. 54, p. 54)) writes that,

“It would be fairly accurate to describe ANT as being half Garfinkel and half Greimas: it has simply combined two of the most interesting intellectual movements on both sides of the Atlantic and has found ways to tap the inner reflexivity of both actor’s accounts and of texts.”

The two intellectual movements referred to are North American ethnomethodology and French structuralism or semiotics (Beetz, 2013). The classic work in semiotics is best summarised in Algirdas Julien Greimas and Joseph Courte’s (1982), Semiotics and Language: an Analytical Dictionary. A more recent presentation of semiotics can be found in Jacques Fontanille (1998), Semiotique du discours.” (Latour, 2005: 54n-55n)


The relevance of actor network theory to the design of narrative environments is double:

1. It deals with the articulation of material, textural, architectural, technological, financial, environmental, textual, discursive and subjective phenomena as a system or network acting to create coherence and subject to change or modification. Narrative environments can be conceived as having a similar range and to be similarly concerned with network effectiveness.

2. It deals with a number of themes that have to be addressed in the design of narrative environments, such as for example,

• an emphasis on semiotic relationality, i.e. a network of elements which shape and define one another;
• an emphasis on heterogeneity, in particular on the different types of actor and action, human and otherwise, that animates the network’s performativity;
• an emphasis on materiality, i.e. the heterogeneous material forms through which the network is realised;
• an insistence on processes and their precariousness, i.e. all elements need to continue to play their part or else it all falls apart;
• paying attention to power, as a function of network configuration, as networked effect and effectiveness; and
• paying attention to space and scale, e.g. how networks maintain their boundaries, extend themselves and translate distant actors.


Actor network theory is not concerned primarily with the design or the creation of new environments but with the study of existing environments as actors-as-networks and networks-as-actors, even though it recognises its study as intervening in practice and that its descriptions, explanations and research actions extend the particular environment/network in question. Nor is actor network theory explicitly concerned with concepts of narrative, although Latour does use the phrase ‘narrative path’ when explaining actor network theory, e.g. in Latour (1996) below.


Beetz, J. (2013). Latour with Greimas Actor-Network Theory and Semiotics. Available from [Accessed 7 August 2015].

Jary, D. and Jary, J. (2000). Collins dictionary of sociology, 3rd ed. Glasgow: HarperCollins.

Latour, B. (1996). On actor-network theory. A few clarificaitons plus more than a few complications. Soziale Welt, 47, 369–381. Available from ACTOR-NETWORK.pdf [Accessed 6 February 2016].

Further reading

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Andrew Barry has an interesting outline of the value of actor-network theory and the intellectual sources from which it draws in:

Barry, A. (2011). Networks. Radical Philosophy, 165, 35–40.

It may also be worth looking at the following online articles:

Law, J. and Urry, J. (2003). Enacting the social. Lancaster: Department of Sociology and the Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University. Available at Accessed 9 March 2007.

Law, J. (2007). Actor network theory and material semiotics. version of 25 April 2007. Available at Accessed 27 November 2008.

Latour, B. (2008). A Cautious Prometheus? a few steps toward a philosophy of design (with special attention to Peter Sloterdijk). Available at Accessed 27 January 2009.

Latour, B. (1996). The trouble with actor-network theory. Available at: Accessed 9 May 2009.