Pulling the Strings with Actor Network Theory

“Critical thinking” is a phrase we repeatedly hear when teachers talk about what they are trying to achieve with their students. In science education, critical thinking has become an omnipresent signifier that could take different meanings. A critical thinker is the one with the ability to demonstrate higher order thinking skills, discern science from pseudoscience, question sources of knowledge and/or interrogate authority, among other things. In my recent work, I have been associating critical thinking with the ability to make the invisible visible. In science education and in the context of socio-scientific issues (e.g. climate change), students, as citizens, may need to see connections among hidden actants that influence decisions on those issues. When students think critically about socio-scientific issues, they are able to expose networks of connections among stakeholders to identify how power circulates and is generated as an effect of particular network configurations. They are able to recognize how issues often portrayed as mere beneficial or harmful to the environment are simplistic representations of reality.

Promoting a “networked view” of science and society as intertwined in complex and dynamic webs of connections may give citizens a more complete picture of interactive entities “that would otherwise happily ignore each other, after all, where else could coral reefs and recycling factories meet if not in global warming debate”? (Venturini, 2010, p. 261). A networked ontology, according to actor network theorists (Callon et al.,1986; Latour, 2005), transcends dichotomies between nature/culture, structure/actor, object/subject and Latour (2005) rationalizes the use of the term “actants” to allude to the never complete agency of entities whether human, non-human, living and non-living.

To illustrate this, consider how a puppet is as much acting on the puppeteer as it is being acted upon. The shape, texture, feel of the puppet characters make the puppeteer do the motions of the story, “dictate the lines and instigate new ways of moving which surprise the puppeteer himself/herself, doing things they would never have done themselves” (Latour & Stark, 1999, p.25). The specific features of the puppet (e.g. color, shape, lighting, the feel of its taffeta, the whiteness of its porcelain arms) are all actants in a network and agency is, thus, a network effect, rather than an a-priori given state.

In a world whereby we, as humans, are as part of others as others are part of us, how is it that we come to think and act in ways that disregard this hybridity, this fluidity? How is that our perceptions of ourselves as self-contained, coherent and rationalistic beings took away from our humanity in a world that we share with other people, living beings and things? Does science education have a hand in this? Does an instrumental view of science contribute to our detachment and distancing from other actants in a network? When scientists are portrayed as agents fully in control of their environment to “discover truths”, nature becomes gradually silenced and objectified. Actor Network Theory might be a valuable tool to reflect on the nature of the relationships that we entertain with others and may allow students to re-think critically science in relation to other social and political networks.

References

Callon, M., Law, J., & Rip, A. (1986). Mapping the dynamics of science and technology. Macmillan: London.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Latour, B., & Stark, M. G. (1999). Factures/fractures: From the concept of network to the concept of attachment. Res: Anthropology and aesthetics, (36), 20-31.

Venturini, T. (2010). Diving in magma: How to explore controversies with actor-network theory. Public understanding of science, 19(3), 258-273.

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