Theories informing my research

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Understanding the implicit and explicit theories of a research article most often means carefully reading through the article for the explicit theories stated therein, and also browsing through the bibliography to see who else or what other theories, frameworks and paradigms have informed the current article. This also provides an insight about which implicit theories the author subscribes too.  To understand authors fully in this respect, it would require reading many of their works.

At the beginning of the Ph.D. program I was unaware of my theoretical framework, or better said, I would have been unable to answer such question if I was asked. At that time I would have thought that I didn’t really subscribe to any particular theory, framework or paradigm. One semester after another I struggled to identify my interests. I wanted to place and find myself within a particular school of thought. This was further complicated by the fact that information science as an interdisciplinary field of study is not yet well define by its theory or paradigm as understood in the traditional sense.

However, as I was writing more and more papers for my coursework, I started realizing that my writings usually concentrate around the subject of information artifacts (i.e. information, information structures, and information systems) and their role in the social structures that utilize them. At this point I decided to re-read all of my papers, four semesters worth. To my surprise and delight, I realized that all this time I was not just writing. I was actually trying to explicate and elaborate (with the language available to me at the time) on how various information technologies effect the social structures around them and concurrently are affected by the same. I recognized this theme throughout my papers.

Soon enough, when I re-read my paper on the actor-network theory and methodology that I had to prepare for presentation in the Human Information Behavior (HIB) class, it was so obvious. Things made sense even the first time when I read about the actor-network theory (Law & Hassard, 1999). However, this time I thought I ‘really’ understood it. All of a sudden the language provided by the actor-network theory and methodology equipped me with a vocabulary and an ability to discuss things of the socio-technological nature.

In retrospect, the systems mode of thinking (Churchman, 1968; Ruben, 2000) I had acquired as a student of electrical engineering as well as during my practical industry experience as information systems analysts appears to have implicitly informed and structured my way of thinking about the phenomena around me. It would be to simplistic to assume that the systems mode of thinking is solely responsible though. As members of the human society from early age we learn how to behave properly and prefer stability over chaos. This in turn suggests common understandings and shared meanings.

So far, after discovering to a certain degree that the actor-network theory and methodology is an ‘obvious’ tool for explicating the interplay between things social and technological, the challenge has been to build a frame of reference or a mindset through which one is able to see the problems related to information science and the resolutions proposed to resolve them. The systems way of thinking emerges as a very insightful and powerful tool, especially because helps you study a problem by identifying the boundaries around it, its scope, what happens within the boundaries, and how the issues with the problem at hand interface with the environment (i.e. with outside of the relevantly defined boundary).

The concepts of interconnectivity of various technical elements within the information and communication systems and the multitude of services they carry almost directly relate (albeit at a different level of application) to various practical communication tools and services that affect the social realm. An information and communication system is not a goal in its own; it is produced and used within the social web of interactions composed of human and non-human entities, or networked actors as suggested by the actor-network theory (ANT) and its methodology, clearly summarized in the edited book by Law and Hassard (1999).

From one perspective, the actor-network theory appears to have emerged from the systems theory by the superimposition of the ethnographic methodology through which Latour has attempted to describer how various human and non-human entities affect each other in a complex web of interconnections: “We are emphasizing this process of mutual shaping because it is important to understand that actors are not simply shaped by the networks in which they are located (although this is certainly true), but they also influence the actors with which they interact” (Law & Callon, 1997, p. 25). Whether one utilizes and appropriates the Actor-Network Theory paradoxically not as a theory but as methodological approach for ethnomethodology, or ANT as an actual theory in the true sense of a parsimonious theory with the classical philosophical understanding and ability to predict (i.e. cause-effect relationship) phenomena around us, two properties are common and fundamentally critical to any color, flavor or form ANT might have emerged and evolved into: inscription and translation, with their ability to act at distance.

The distinction of Actor-Network Theory from ANT is not only semantic in nature since “ANT” is not just an acronym for Actor-Network Theory (Law, 1999). Going from Actor-Network Theory into ANT, the concepts, ideas and thoughts of the original inscription of the Actor-Network Theory performed and were perform upon in the web of scholarly discourse, thus translating themselves into self sustainable quasi theories, evident from the many different ways ANT has been used to explicate multitude of phenomena (Bijker & Law, 1997). If actor-network theory was not reduced to ANT, Law argues, perhaps it would not have been possible to become as pervasive as it has become but not without being translated, transformed and performed. This distinction is evident from Law’s and Latour’s (1999) statement in Law and Hassard (1999). In expressing his wishful thinking to recall ANT back to its origins, Latour, one of the original authors that laid down the principles of what has became ANT, states:

For us, ANT was simply another way at being faithful to the insight of ethnomethodology: actors know what they do and we have to learn from them not only what they do, but how and why they do it. It is us, the social scientists, who lack the knowledge of what they do, and not they who are missing the explanation of why they are unwittingly manipulated by forces exterior to themselves and known to the social scientist's powerful gaze and methods. (Latour, p. 19)

Far from being a theory of the social or even worse an explanation of what makes society exert pressure on actors, it always was, and this from its inception, a crude method to learn from the actors without imposing on them an a priori definition of their world-building capacities. (p. 20)

Latour’s statements are primarily methodological in nature, in sharp contrast with Law’s description of what ANT has become that sound more like theories:

ANT tells that entities take their form and acquire their attributes as a result of their relation with other entities. (Law, p. 3)

They [entities] are performed in, by, and through those relations. A consequence is that everything is uncertain and reversible, at lest in principle. (p. 4)

Law (1999) further argues that it is the translation into the simplistic ANT acronym, using semantics as the translation tool, which has enabled it to be marketable/saleable and able to perform and be performed upon. In the process of translation it has lost its initial meaning by being removed from the context in which it was thought to operate and by being performed upon, concurrently performing upon other entities as one of the actors in the social network of scholarly communication, traversing across various disciplines and emerging as “many things that are new and different from one another” (Law et al., p. 10). According to Law, the simplicity of the language is at fault for enabling the actor-network theory to be performed upon and be translated into other things that might not have remained faithful to the spirit of actor-network. However, this is not to say that the process of translation has not been helpful and beneficial. As a result ANT has been used to explain various phenomena in many domains such as: politics, arts, economics, power control, science, organization, medicine, technology, etc.

At this point it is important to define and explain some of the language used by the actor-network. It is a difficult task to state these definitions up front because the authors themselves use actor-network related language to define what they mean by actor-network.

Actors are any entities that are part of our reality. Actors can be human or non-human such as machines, computers, social structures, information, environments, etc.

Networks are complex entities constructed by two or more actors connected between themselves through various links or communication channels.

Inscription is the act or process by which actors perform on other actors shaping their attributes and properties. Simply, the properties and attributes of any particular actor or network are a result of a complex inscription process by human and non-human actors. Human actors are able to inscribe onto non-human actors, as well as non-human actors are able to inscribe onto human actors (Akrich & Latour, 1997).

The translation process as described by Law (1999): “For translation is the process or the work of making two things that are not the same, equivalent” (p. 8), suggests that properties and attributes are transferable from one actor onto another and responsible for the translation process. Perhaps a simple understanding of the translation process is best understood as expressed by an old proverb: “You become like those with whom you are part of” (author unknown). However, a close look at the definition also reveals another important sense in which the concept of translation has been used, especially in Law’s language that actor-network theory was translated into ANT. In this case, a complex set of theoretical and methodological actors was replaced by (read as ‘translated into’) ANT. From this it is evident that the definitions of actor, network and link are relative with respect to each other, depending on the point of reference. For example, a scholarly article is an actor in one volume of a journal.  It is however also an actor in the field of studies that the journal belongs two. At the same time, the journal itself is an actor amongst other journals in the same field of study. Thus, if reductionism is attempted one may define all elements of the actor network as special cases of the definition of an actor depending on the element’s intrinsic and extrinsic properties and attributes.

The properties and attributes of the originating actors can potentially translate the corresponding attributes and corresponding properties of the actors they have acted upon, subject to the degree of openness of the links and the actors. An emphasis in this process is transferability of properties and attributes from one actor to another and their translation. The process of translation as described by Law (1999, pp. 6-7) suggests that the ‘things’ that can be made equivalent contain corresponding or congruent properties and attributes. Like the actors in a network topology, the relations (i.e. links) have attributes and characteristics through which the actors can potentially perform on the rest of the network and be performed by it. As with the actors, the link properties and attributes ought to be congruent and corresponding for any translation to occur. The key however is that the network actors can be human or non-human, with both human and non-human actors able to act upon each other and induce translation.

Openness: “… a distinction is made between inside and outside [of an actor] and a set of exchanges between the two is defined and regulated … those who are outside find themselves compelled to participate in those exchanges” (Law & Bijker, 1997, p. 294).

An important characteristic of any network, and the actor-network theory and ANT for that matter is its boundary. Defining the boundary is imperative for the successful utilization of the actor-network methodology or ANT. The boundaries of a given network and the relations-links amongst its constitutive entities with their scope of influence are identified with the construct topology. An actor-network topology is usually described as logically grouped entities or elements associated and linked to each other via some relations. Like the elements in the network topology, the relations (i.e. links) have properties and characteristics through which the elements, as potential actors, can perform on the rest of the network and be performed by it (Law et al., p. 6-7). An actor can belong in multiple topologies simultaneously, performing and behaving differently in various topologies depending on its relative position in the respective network.

Furthermore, inscription’s and translation’s ability to act at distance across time and space is an important capability postulated by the actor-network framework. It is the translation carried via actor’s inscriptions that enable the actor to transfer its attributes and properties to other actors in its immediate topologies (at various levels), subject to actors’, links’ and topologies’ degree of openness.

The processes of inscription and translations are in constant flux and iterative in nature thus enabling a relative stability in the corresponding network. The perceived stability is actually performative in nature. It is relatively relative stability enabling entities in any given network to maintain themselves.

It is perhaps evident from the above language suggested by the actor-network theory and methodology why Latour (1999) would like to recall ANT back to be what he meant it to be: an actor-network mode of thinking as a semantic tool for doing easy ethnomethodology. However, scholars in various disciplines found substantial operationalizable semantic entities and appropriated them to fit their own research interests. Thus, actor-network and its constitutive elements became subjects of their own interpretation through the process of appropriation by scholars in various fields of study, resulting in many ‘flavors’ of ANT.

While the actor-network framework provides us with a language to understand how actors are able to affect other actors in their neighborhood and which aspect of the actor-network elements ought to be utilized, DeSanctis and Poole (1994) suggest the Adaptive Structuration Theory (AST) as a mechanism to examine the change process in a given organization by looking at the type of structures provided by advanced technologies (inherent structures), and the structures that actually emerge in human actions as people interact with these technologies (p. 121). AST is more specific to the interplay between the structures provided by advanced information technologies and social structures within which they are embedded, emphasizing strongly on how the features and properties of information system are acquired and constructed, and how these specific structures affect the organizational structures.

In the onset it would appear that actor-network and AST attempt to do help us explain the same: "So, there are structures in technology, on the one hand, and structures in actions, on the other. The two are continually intertwined; there is a recursive relationship between the technology and action, each iteratively shaping the other" (Desanctis, p. 125). However, they seem to compliment each other in a sense that actor-network provides us with the language to understand how actors affect each other while AST is mostly concentrated on the aspects of how a particular actor (information system, social structure, etc) is constructed and modified in the iterative process: "New social structures emerge in group interaction as the rules and resources of an AIT [advanced information technologies] are appropriated in a given context and then reproduced in group interaction over time" (p. 129). AST strongly emphasizes on the process of appropriation of information technologies in a given setting, suggesting that information technologies in their initial implementation come with pre-defined feature (i.e. the spirit) that are being appropriate by the users. The appropriation in turn has effect on the construction and modification of the social structures that in turn redefine how the information technology is used, often in ways not indented by the designers.

Thus, it appears that both actor-network and AST are implicitly informed by the systems theory, complementing each other by enabling us with a language and concepts that are necessary to understand the interactions and the mutual shaping of human and non-human entities in various environments.

References:

Akrich, M. & Latour, B. (1997). A Summary of a Convenient Vocabulary for the Semiotics of Human and Nonhuman Assemblies. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (pp. 259-264). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Bijker, W. E. & Law, J. (Eds.). (1997). Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Churchman, C. W. (1968). The systems approach. New York: Dell.

DeSanctis, G. & Poole, M. S. (1994). Capturing the Complexity in Advanced Technology Use: Adaptive Structuration Theory. Organization Science, 5 (2), 121-147

Latour, B. (1999). On Recalling ANT. In J. Law & J. Hassard (Eds.), Actor Network Theory and After (pp. 14-25). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Law, J. (1999). After ANT: Complexity, naming and topology. In J. Law & J. Hassard (Eds.), Actor Network Theory and After (pp. 1-14). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Law, J. & Bijker, W. E. (1997). Postscript: Technology, Stability, and Social Theory. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (pp. 290-308). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Law, J. & Callon, M. (1997). The life and death of an aircraft: a network analysis of technical change. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (pp. 21-52). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Law, J. & Hassard, J. (Eds.). (1999). Actor Network Theory and After. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Ruben, B. D. (2000). Systems Theory and the Quality Approach to Organizations. In L. C. Lederman & W. D. Gibson (Eds.), Communication Theory: A Casebook Approach (pp. 173-199). Dubuque, Iowa: Kendal/Hunt Publishing Company.

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Mentor Cana writes about the process of locating a theoretical framework through which to approach one's research. I've struggled with this this year. It's still not resolved. I realized it was a dead end to start off wallowing in theory and philosophy... Read More

By Mentor Cana, PhD
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