RELATED TERMS: Actant; Actor-Network Theory

Actors are to be distinguished from actants.

Actors are the concrete characters of a story or the dramatis personae of a play. The notion of actant, on the other hand, offers an inventory of classes of entities in a narrative, which are defined by their relations to one another.

Thus, A. J. Greimas distinguishes between actants, which belong to narrative syntax, and actors, which are recognisable in the particular discourse in which they are manifested (Greimas 1987: 106). In simple terms, actors are the things in a narrative that have names, such as the King, Tom, Excalibur, while actants are the narrative units they manifest and which have a functional role in the narrative, such as helper, opponent, sender and receiver.

Actors always have agency (the ability or the competency to act/act upon), although not necessarily intentionality (conscious intention to act), the ability to reflect upon their action or to act reflexively in the course of inter-action (the ability to alter one’s position on the basis of conscious intentionality and reflective awareness during an inter-action).

The terms actor and actant may be useful for distinguishing what people imagine they are doing, how they construct their own character and understand that character’s motivations and actions, and what people may be found to be doing in more systemic terms, how their actions contribute to collective forms action of which they may not be conscious, at least initially, on the individual level.

For example, someone may conceive of themselves as a car driver as part of their social-personal identity as a named individual actor. Others may ride a bicycle as part of their social-personal identity as named individual actor. In more social scientific and environmental science terms, car-drivers as actants are major contibutors to air pollution and climate change relative to cyclists as actants who are seen as more environmentally responsible. People are therefore both actors, in their own self-conception of their actions, i.e. as ‘theirs’ in a pragmatic sense, as belonging to them, and actants, in a more systemic conceptualisation of action and agency where their actions are judged by other means.

Such distinctions have socio-historical, socio-cultural, socio-economic and geo-political dimensions. The relations between one’s behaviour as a self-defined actor and the ways in which that actantiality is understood to play out changes over time. For example, when in the past a person formed part of their identity around car driving, that decision may not have been seen, by themselves or by a majority of others, as a choice between being environmentally responsible or irresponsible. It may have seemed, indeed, to be a rite of passage into adulthood and a marker of progressive economic development.


It may be necessary, then, to retain both of the terms actor, with its common-sense associations and connotations, and actant, with its more technical meanings. For example, Ponti (2010) uses both terms in her discussion of how it may be possible to design a socio-technical system:

In ANT [Actor-Network Theory] an actor is a semiotic concept, that is, an entity that can act and influence other entities – it is an actant – and it can be anything, because this “actantiality” does not presuppose human motivations or intentions (Latour, 1998). For this reason, actor is a hybrid category that includes both human beings and nonhumans, such as technological artifacts, and does not entail social asymmetries or hierarchies. The heterogeneity implied by the notion of actor allows to take into account the participation and influence of nonhuman actors, including artifacts and organisations. I argue that this aspect is important to describe and design a new sociotechnical system such as a collaboratory [a collaborative workplace].”


Greimas, A. J. (1987). On Meaning . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ponti, M. (2010) Actors in collaboration: sociotechnical Influence on practice-research collaboration. Swedish School of Library and Information Science, the Center for Collaborative Innovation. doi:

Porter Abbott, H. (2002) The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative , Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.