Into the Trafigura ANT hill: theory & practice for online media

Posted on: November 6, 2009


I have loved the controversial Actor Network Theory (ANT) since my introduction to it at LSE last year. I feel it helps provides a view of, and a superior means with which, to interrogate power in all its forms. Affording us a mechanism to view our political structures and information systems as vast multi-dimensional webs within webs. I find it endlessly fascinating and practically useful as a web strategist, social marketer, media theorist and whatever odd pointy hats might be worn in between.

Thus it was with glee I referred to ANT theory in my recent post on Trafigura.

And I was of course delighted to get feedback on twitter from a former classmate in response – challenging the relevance of ANT in that case, and calling me out on specific elements.


Intellectual Scaffolding

First of all I might respond by offering the opinion that theory should be used as ‘intellectual scaffolding’ (Dahlgren, 2009) to explore, frame and drive research and argument, not to stifle and limit as part of tick-box excercises.

Actor Network: Not a Unity, Not an Orthodoxy: like any other approach to social analysis, the texts influenced by actor-network theory represent and develop a range of concerns and tools. This means that though it is possible to identify certain preoccupations and concerns common to these texts, there is no orthodoxy, no one ‘right way’ of developing the approach. It also means that actor-network is not a single orthodoxy, a fully consistent body of writing with its holy scriptures. Indeed, the most creative texts are often those that change and rework its preoccupations and its tools – or which combine them in one way or another with those of other approaches with which it is in dialogue.

The Actor Network Resource

However, this is not to say that one can drop any theory onto any situation, and scream (artistic) academic license in its application. It therefore seems warranted to indulge the criticism by exploring some of the main building blocks of ANT how I believe they might be considered in relation to the twitter / Trafigura story.

Actor Network Theory

What is it?

Latour (2005) has described ANT as the ‘sociology of associations’, as opposed to the ‘sociology of the social’. Instead of accepting the existence of a vast ‘social’ world that influences the non-human world, ANT says that we need to be able to look at all components of the ‘natural’ and ‘non-natural’ world. When these components are rendered visible as actors (or actants) we can then see how all elements affect one another.

In constructing an ANT account we are thus able to see that science (and indeed politics) is never stable and fixed or ‘true’, but is instead transitory and uncertain, determined during trials of strength leading to continuous re-interpretations.

Latour has critiqued the vast swathe of social science as a ‘sociology of naked people‘ – in other words, a practice of analysing ‘society’ without consideration of the clothes people are wearing (and all other non-human agents around them).

You can read more about ANT here.

Actor / actant

What is it?

“Common examples of actors include humans, collectivities of humans, texts, graphical representations, and technical artifacts. Actors, all of which have interests, try to convince other actors so as to create an alignment of the other actors’ interests with their own interests. When this persuasive process becomes effective, it results in the creation of an actor-network.” The word ‘actant’ has often been used in place of ‘actor’ as some have been uncomfortable to describe an object that is not alive as an ‘actor’.

How does it relate to the twitter / Trafigura story?

In the story actors include Paul Farrelly MP, twitter, networks of people on twitter as collectives (or clusters), Stephen Fry and other individual tweeters, the UK parliament, The Ivory Coast, Trafigura, Carter-Ruck (Tafigura’s lawyers), Leigh Day and Company (the Ivorians’ lawyers) The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, etc. etc.


What is it?

In very simple terms, it is when what is wanted by one actor is understood by another, or the process through which actors interact with each other to build networks or change them. It has been described as “A multifaceted interaction in which actors (1) construct common definitions and meanings, (2) define representativities, and (3) co-opt each other in the pursuit of individual and collective objectives.”

How does it relate to the twitter / Trafigura story?

There were moments of translation where the courts, the company (Trafigura), Carter-Ruck (their libel lawyers), The Guardian, Stephen Fry and other tweeters pursued their individual and collective objectives, resulting in a new reality with tweeters now a core part of the ‘press freedom’ debate. For example:

Obligatory Passage Point

What is it?

The focal actor comes in here: “The first moment of translation during which a focal actor defines identities and interests of other actors that are consistent with its own interests, and establishes itself as an obligatory passage point (OPP), thus “rendering itself indispensable” (Callon, 1986).

The obligatory passage point broadly refers to a situation that has to occur in order for all the actors to satisfy the interests that have been attributed to them by the focal actor. The focal actor defines the OPP through which the other actors must pass through and by which the focal actor becomes indespensable.

How does it relate to the twitter / Trafigura story?

In the moments leading up to the Trafigura story exploding, those who were connected to twitter found it indespensable, in the sense that they could not found the forbidden information or have reached so many and had such a strong effect via any other media at that time.

However, I feel ANT works without ‘Obligatory Passage Points’ as it may not be the case that other actors must follow a certain course. My point is that an actor can accumulate power from others and their choices without defining the only viable option as a ‘focal actor’. That actions and motivations by actors associated with one another are complex, multi-faceted and not necessarily due to being forced, dictated, or explicitly suggested by others. For example, a choice might be made according to someone on twitter having an unconscious desire for ‘cascading benefits‘ from their connections.

I would argue against the necessity of a focal actor also on the grounds that it implies there must be one actor more important than all others within a given network, as actually that is not necessarily the case. This is similar to the way Todd Gitlin has criticised Habermas’s public sphere concept, arguing for the need to consider public sphericules.

I would further argue that concepts such as the Habermassian sphere may indeed add to an ANT analysis of the Trafigura case, but could not possibly replace what ANT offers in terms of revealing a network of associations and how power is translated, diluted and indeed shifts as it approaches and passes through different mediators.


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